An innovator in the Direct Cinema style of documentary filmmaking, also known as cinéma vérité, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker got his start in the 1950s, making experimental films. He went on to make his name as one of the premier documentarians of the latter half of the 20th century, focusing his lens on subjects as diverse as Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Bill Clinton.
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A native of Evanston, IL, Pennebaker served a stint in the Navy, worked as an engineer, and founded Electronics Engineering (the makers of the first computerized airline reservation system) before beginning his film career. Following his directorial debut, a 1953 film called Daybreak Express that featured a score by Duke Ellington, Pennebaker joined the Filmmakers' Co-op in 1959. Working with other young filmmakers, he began making Direct Cinema documentaries, starting with his 1960 film Primary. A behind-the-scenes look at the Wisconsin Democratic Primary between Presidential candidates Kennedy and Humphrey, the documentary was the first to take a candid look at the everyday goings-on of a Presidential race. Years later, Pennebaker would use this approach to observe the various antics behind the 1992 Presidential candidacy, resulting in the critically lauded The War Room.
Following Primary, the director turned his attentions to the theater, with Jane (Fonda), a 1962 documentary that employed the behind-the-scenes tactics of his previous film to document Fonda's opening of her first role on Broadway. Broadway was a subject to which Pennebaker would repeatedly return over the years, but his next major effort, 1967's Don't Look Back, was an acclaimed account of Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of England. The black-and-white documentary gave Dylan fans the first look at their idol since his 1966 motorcycle accident and also devoted plenty of screen time to traveling companions Joan Baez and Alan Price. The same year, Pennebaker collaborated with author Norman Mailer on the first of many projects they would do together, Beyond the Law. Acting as cinematographer for the film -- a rollicking tale of gambling, corruption, and biker bums -- Pennebaker again worked with Mailer in the same capacity on the improvisational Wild 90, also released that year.
1967 proved to be an extraordinarily busy year for the filmmaker; in addition to his previously mentioned projects, he found time to direct two other documentaries, Jimi Hendrix: Live in Monterey, 1967 and Otis Redding: Live in Monterey, 1967. The following year, he returned to the festival with Monterey Pop, and then continued documenting some of the era's most influential musicians with 1969's John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Live Peace in Toronto, 1969. After another collaboration with Mailer, 1970's Maidstone, Pennebaker returned to the city of Toronto the next year, with Sweet Toronto, a documentary about the 1969 rock festival that featured performers such as John Lennon, David Bowie, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Bowie was the subject of the director's next effort, David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a filmed account of the performer's 1973 farewell concert that did not see release for another ten years.
Following a period of relative inactivity, Pennebaker returned in 1980 with Town Bloody Hall, a documentary about an infamous 1971 roundtable discussion among Mailer, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and assorted feminists that disintegrated into verbal warfare. His next directorial project, the long-delayed Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1983), put him back into more glittery territory with a filmed account of Bowie's 1973 concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon Theatre. It was another seven years before Pennebaker made another documentary; in 1990, he directed Depeche Mode: 101. Two years later, the director attracted widespread acclaim and a 1993 Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination for The War Room, a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's bid for the 1992 Presidency. He co-directed with partner and spouse Chris Hegedus, who also served as his co-director on Branford Marsalis: The Music Tells You (1992), and 1997's Moon Over Broadway. The latter recalled Pennebaker's earlier look at a Broadway production, Jane (Fonda), as it followed the progress of a production of Moon Over Buffalo from rehearsals to its eventual opening night on the Great White Way. In 1999, the director revisited the music that had inspired some of the best work of his career with the made-for-TV Searching for Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock Diary. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi