A documentary filmmaker is never better than his subjects. Sometimes he’s worse. When D.A. Pennebaker had great subjects he made great films. I’m not sure about the rest. Those great subjects happened to be Bob Dylan in the mid-60’s and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
To be fair, the only other film of Pennebaker’s I’ve seen is 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency the year before. The skill was there, and the subject was, too. But Pennebaker missed it. He treated the campaign the way the campaign wanted to be treated and since it was obvious, even a year later, that the campaign was made up of craven phonies, beginning at the top, it’s an empty exercise. A great artist would have sensed the opportunity to expose all that, and done so at any cost.
So let’s not call D.A. Pennebaker a great artist.
But he was an enormously skilled craftsman and that skill won him the opportunity to capture two signature events in the decade that marked the American Experiments greatest opportunities for both success and failure. That the latter has swamped the former in the decades since was not the fault of Pennebaker or his subjects. To judge how fortunate we are to have had him at the helm of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, you don’t need to look any further than Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, where what might have been an electric event was turned sodden by Scorcese’s choice of distancing the audience from the performers.
Maybe you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But you need somebody with a sense of the moment to capture the moment.
D.A. Pennebaker sensed the moment that mattered. After that, he was blown away by the wind.
Then again, so was Bob Dylan. What you can sense, in both Don’t Look Back and the incendiary performances etched on the national memory by the soon-dead Janis, Jimi, Keith and Otis across the long weekend at Monterey, is that no one was going to get out intact, even in the unlikely event they got out alive. You can still feel it whenever and whatever those films play.
Thank Donn Alan Pennebaker for that. Left in anyone else’s hands, a lot that we can see and feel and hear from the decade we’ll still have to understand if we’re ever going to get out of this alive ourselves, might be left to our imaginations. Which could never match this: