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Pioneering Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker Dies At 94


D.A. Pennebaker was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking. Back in the 1960s, he used newly available hand-held cameras to create classic cinema verite. His influence is seen in many of today's documentaries. Pennebaker died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 94. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: D.A. Pennebaker made films about almost everything - music in "Monterey Pop"...


THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.

BLAIR: ...Politics with "The War Room"...


GEORGE H W BUSH: I am, every single night, hearing one of these carping, little liberal Democrats...

BLAIR: ...Animal rights with "Unlocking The Cage."


STEVEN M WISE: So when you imprison a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee understands that tomorrow, he's going to be imprisoned.

BLAIR: D.A. Pennebaker's widow and longtime filmmaking partner Chris Hegedus told us that Penny, as his friends and family called him, had a personality that was open and giving.

CHRIS HEGEDUS: Penny was just endlessly curious about people, about the world.

BLAIR: Hegedus says one of Pennebaker's biggest inspirations throughout his life was jazz.

HEGEDUS: Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie - you know, these were his heroes, and he had - we had, you know, about 1,578 records. We listened to them all the time, and in fact, we put them in as many movies as we could for a while.

BLAIR: Pennebaker's first film, a short called "Daybreak Express" from 1953, is set to Ellington's song of the same name. The film is like a rhythmic series of images of a New York subway line.


BLAIR: Pennebaker was one of the early documentary filmmakers to use cinema verite, a style known for showing authentic, natural situations. For one of his most legendary films, he followed Bob Dylan around London in 1965 as the musician transitioned from folk to rock. In one scene, Pennebaker is in the car with Dylan, filming him after a concert. Someone tells Dylan the press called him an anarchist.


BOB DYLAN: I want a cigarette. Give the anarchist a cigarette.


BLAIR: "Don't Look Back" was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry. Not only that, Pennebaker may have created the first music video. You know that video of Bob Dylan tossing cue cards to the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues." It was shot by Pennebaker.


DYLAN: (Singing) Johnny's in the basement, mixing up the medicine. I'm on the pavement, thinking about the government.

BLAIR: "Don't Look Back" was one of the first rock documentaries that, rather than simply promote an artist, let viewers see what life was like beyond the concert stage, says documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus.

LIZ GARBUS: He left it to his audience's intelligence to kind of watch his films and learn and, you know, weave their meaning for themselves.

BLAIR: Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus embedded with Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign staff, including colorful campaign manager James Carville.


JAMES CARVILLE: Why is it that I'm always asked, what are we going to when George Bush attacks us? Why don't you go ask George Bush, what's he going to do when we hold him accountable for all, you know, the wrong that he's done to this country?

BLAIR: Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi calls Pennebaker's "The War Room" the greatest political documentary of all time. She says up to that point, the public really didn't understand what was happening behind the scenes.

ALEXANDRA PELOSI: And that film demasked the way we looked at political figures. It showed us, you know, how the sausage was made. It's sort of, you know, "The Wizard of Oz." We saw the man behind the curtain.

BLAIR: D.A. Pennebaker pulled back dozens of curtains over the course of his career. Instead of telling us how we should feel about what we find there, he showed us.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMPARO'S "COASTAL DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.