Legendary films about legendary times. Don’t Look Back, the classic film that showed the young Bob Dylan in his historic transition from acoustic troubadour to rock shaman. Monterey Pop, the film that captured Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in their high-watt explosion onto the scene, perhaps the very moment when rock music shifted from show business to belief system. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, where David Bowie turned rock’s power into self-parody, marking the end of rock’s most influential phase. D.A. Pennebaker directed these seminal films.
A longtime resident of the Hamptons, Pennebaker first started coming out here in the late ’50s, and since the ’60s has had a house in Sag Harbor. “Sag Harbor was such a sleepy little town then,” he remembered in a recent conversation, but he doesn’t seem perturbed by the changes that have happened. I sat down with Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus, in their city offices to discuss their work and their connection to the East End. Hegedus and Pennebaker have collaborated and co-directed since the late 70s, and they married in 1982. Their documentary The War Room, which covered Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, was nominated for an Academy Award.
All of Pennebaker’s documentaries are filmed in the cinema verité style. Along with Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, Pennebaker was a founding American master of cinema verité, or what is sometimes called direct cinema. In direct cinema, the camera is an observer, or, as Pennebaker likes to say, the camera is “like a cat in a window,” watching but not affecting the action at hand. More traditional documentaries use narration and interviews to help tell a story, while cinema verité emphasizes “being there” and letting actions and subjects speak for themselves. Pennebaker, with Leacock and Maysles, pioneered the technique while filming documentaries produced by Robert Drew and Drew Associates. Crucial to their work was the advances in film technology of the early 1960s, including the advent of lighter, more mobile motion picture cameras and the development of crystal synch, which ensured that separately recorded sound and image could be reliably synched up in the editing process.
In 1963, Pennebaker worked on Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, for which Drew Associates was granted unprecedented access to the Kennedy White House to observe President John F. Kennedy’s showdown with Alabama governor George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama. Aired on ABC, the film generated controversy because of the intrusion of cameras into the inner functions of the government.
The problem is, in order for direct cinema to work, the cameras need this kind of access. “In direct cinema, the camera must be there when the thing happens,” is how Pennebaker puts it. Otherwise, the film will require narration and interviews and then “it’s just like television.” Most politicians are fine having cameras around when things are going well. However, “when things aren’t going well, politicians don’t want you around,” commented Hegedus.
Viewed today, Crisis is notable for its behind-the-scenes look at John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and of course the Kennedy children, comprising perhaps the most charismatic political family America has ever known.
Looking back, Pennebaker seems to have had tremendous foresight in his choice of subjects. Who in 1964 could have predicted the massive cultural impact that Bob Dylan was to have when he switched to the electric blues? Who would have known, in 1967, that the Monterey Pop Festival would be remembered to this day as the first and best of the 60s rock festivals? According to Pennebaker, though, it is more a matter of good fortune and being in the right place at the right time.
“With Monterey Pop, John and Lou wanted me to do it,” he says, referring to John Phillips (of Mamas and Papas fame) and producer Lou Adler, “and ABC was putting up some of the money. I just wanted to go to California, because at the time it was the place to go. I watched the film Endless Summer, which was supposed to be about surfing but was really about California, and I wanted to be there.”
Pennebaker and Hegedus’ films tend to be wildly entertaining, in part because they focus on naturally entertaining people or activities. 2010’s The Kings of Pastry, for example, follows three pastry chefs as they train and compete for membership in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, France’s highest order of patissiers. If you don’t think making melted sugar into ribbons would be fascinating to watch, the movie will change your mind.
One constant throughout his career has been Pennebaker’s affinity for musicians, an affinity that Hegedus shares. “I admire musicians because they have a skill that you can’t just pick up,” she explains. “You can’t just decide to become a musician.” It’s also helpful that music-making is tailor made for cinema verité. A camera following a musician around is bound to pick up the spontaneous performances that audiences love to watch.
But for Pennebaker, his admiration for musicians really stems from his frustration at not being one. “I studied organ as a kid, and I wanted to play like Fats Waller,” he says. “When I told my teacher, he was appalled!” Organ lessons soon came to a stop. “Making films about musicians is a way I can be involved. I think of all people, musicians come the closest to answering to God.” In recent years, Pennebaker and Hegedus produced Only the Strong Survive about the continuing careers of Memphis soul musicians like Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Rufus Thomas and Ann Peebles. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. They also made Down From the Mountain, a concert film featuring roots musicians from the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. According to Hegedus, “It’s always a relief after finishing a piece about a politician to go back to musicians.”
Even so, one of their best-known films is about politics, and it is considered a masterpiece of political documentary. The War Room follows the Clinton campaign strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, as they deal with the almost daily “bimbo eruptions” and “I didn’t inhale” moments of the ‘92 campaign. While this wasn’t the filmmakers’ choice (“We couldn’t get access to Clinton,” remembers Hegedus), cinematically it’s a good thing: after all, George Stephanopoulus is easier to look at than Bill Clinton and James Carville is, well, James Carville. “It became a buddy picture,” observes Hegedus.
While Pennebaker and Hegedus would love to have an excuse to make a film in the Hamptons, Sag Harbor is mostly where they come to recharge their creative batteries and, as Hegedus says, to “eat good!” For Pennebaker, “eating good” means, among other things, the scones at Espresso, treats that he will go to any length to procure.
The two are currently working on a film about animal rights activist Steven Wise (it’s in the fundraising stage), and they are also involved in the slow process of digitally converting and archiving their older films. After Pennebaker’s 60 years in the business, there’s a lot of film stock to be converted and choices to be made.