D.A. Pennebaker, Pioneer of Cinéma Vérité in America, Dies at 94

D. A. Pennebaker, the groundbreaking documentary filmmaker best known for capturing pivotal moments in the history of rock music and politics, including Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England and Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, died on Thursday at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by his son Frazer Pennebaker.

Mr. Pennebaker was part of a close-knit group of pioneering filmmakers in the 1960s who helped bring cinéma vérité to the United States. Michael Moore, presenting Mr. Pennebaker with an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2012, said Mr. Pennebaker, along with Robert Drew, Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, had “invented nothing less than the modern documentary.”

The key development in that invention was the advent of synchronous-sound cameras, which allowed the filmmakers to move more freely with and among their subjects, and to do away with the postproduction voice-over model of narrative. “You wanted to drive the stories by what people said to each other,” Mr. Pennebaker once said, “not by what you thought up on a yellow pad.”

In 1965, Mr. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, approached Mr. Pennebaker about following the singer on a British tour.

“I could see right away that you couldn’t actually occupy space with a person who intended to become president in a very interesting way,” he told The A.V. Club. “They were constrained to act; as soon as the camera appeared, they had to pretend to be something else.”

Mr. Pennebaker focused instead on George Stephanopoulos, James Carville and other then-little-known (and less camera-shy) operatives. The result, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, was “a revealing film and an invaluable document.”

His political films are now part of the canon, but the scenes from Mr. Pennebaker’s catalog that still circulate most widely are of pop culture figures in action: Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire in “Monterey Pop”; Elaine Stritch in “Original Cast Album: Company,” exhausted and straining to record “The Ladies Who Lunch” while Stephen Sondheim and others look on in despair; Mr. Dylan showing up the softer-edged singer Donovan in a hotel room crowded with their hangers-on; and the actor Rip Torn attacking Norman Mailer with a hammer at the end of “Maidstone” (1970), one of three eccentric movies directed by Mr. Mailer, for which Mr. Pennebaker served as a cameraman.

Mr. Mailer’s films from that era are mostly notable as oddball vanity projects (in The Times, Vincent Canby called “Maidstone” “a very mixed bag” that “doesn’t make a great deal of sense”), but Mr. Pennebaker’s relationship with the author would pay dividends down the line. In 1971, he accepted Mr. Mailer’s suggestion that he film a panel discussion that Mr. Mailer was holding at Town Hall in Manhattan. The topic would be the state of feminism.

Mr. Mailer was his pugnacious self as he battled with, among others, the author Germaine Greer and the journalist Jill Johnston before a raucous audience. At one point two women from the audience took the stage and kissed and groped Ms. Johnston, an activist for lesbian rights, before all three tumbled to the floor.

The footage of the night remained on a shelf for nearly a decade, but when it was released as “Town Bloody Hall” in 1979, it was called a remarkable time capsule of a colorful moment in New York’s intellectual and cultural history. The filmmaker Chris Hegedus, Mr. Pennebaker’s third wife (they married in 1982) and creative partner, edited the footage, which she once called “incredibly rough.”

“There was so much sexual tension going on between Norman and Germaine in it,” Ms. Hegedus said, adding, “I almost edited it as a love story, in a certain way.”

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