Documentary has lost one of its true giants. D.A. Pennebaker, whose career spanned more than 50 years and included 60 documentaries as director and several others as collaborator, has died at the age of 94, survived by his wife and frequent collaborator Chris Hegedus.
Pennebaker was one of the leading figures in the group of filmmakers (also including the late Albert Maysles) who brought direct cinema movement to the US in the 1960s, revolutionising the genre and often credited as being the forefathers of the modern documentary. Key to this new form of filmmaking were the new portable cameras which could record sound synchronised with images, meaning films could abandon the traditional voiceover model of narrative employed in post-production and allow filmmakers to move freely with and among their subjects.
And what subjects they have been. Ranging from politicians, including JFK (Primary) and Clinton (The War Room), to counter-cultural icons, most famously Dylan in Don't Look Back - often to be found in the list of the best documentaries ever made - but also Joplin and Hendrix in Monterey Pop, and Bowie when he famously killed off his eponymous alter-ego in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 'Penny' had a knack for delivering bold and idiosyncratic films which will forever stand the test of time. This knack came from what might be considered the three facets of any great documentarian - a canny eye, great technical knowledge, and a huge amount of patience.
Whilst Pennebaker may be best-known for his work with the above list of high-profile subjects, it would be foolhardy to gloss over the rest of his incredible filmography, which covered a huge range of subjects, including most recently Kings of Pastry, a portrait of the world’s finest pastry chefs competing for the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France award in Lyon, and Unlocking The Cage, a documentary about attempts to secure legal rights for animals.
Relevant until the very end, Pennebaker's previously unseen footage of Leonard Cohen on the island of Hydra back in the 1960s has recently surfaced in Nick Broomfield's Marianne and Leonard: Letters of Love. It is somewhat mind-boggling to think that such incredible footage lay untouched in his attic for all these years, begging the question what other gems might lie there.
Pennebaker, a true giant. Documentary would be very different, and a lot worse off, without you.