Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Doctober Feature #4: D.A. Pennebaker Rocks! (Part II) – 101 (1989), The War Room (1993), and Dont Look Back (1967)

D.A. Pennebaker has made such an impact on documentary filmmaking over his fifty-plus year career, and yet I had never seen a single one of his films until just last week.  It is for this reason that I am writing another feature on the man and his terrific films, as I feel few far too few people my age have seen or even heard of his films.  I look forward to seeking out some of his lesser-known films in the future, and even more so being able to see new works from him, starting with his upcoming film Unlocking the Cage, coming out in 2016.  This feature will cover the film that Pennebaker and partner Chris Hegedus considered their “favorite”, 101 (1989), the Academy Award-nominated The War Room (1993), and finally the film that started it all, Dont Look Back (1967).

0018102e_medium101 (1989)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, David Dawkins

Starring: Depeche Mode (Andrew Fletcher, David Gahan, Martin Gore, Alan Wilder)

Having known next to nothing about 1980’s new wave rock band Depeche Mode prior to seeing this documentary, you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon anecdotes saying that the masterful D.A. Pennebaker considered this his “favorite” film to make.  Prior to making 101, D.A. Pennebaker was in exactly the same boat as I was, he and partner Chris Hegedus (and David Dawkins) knew little to nothing about the popular English band, and yet came out on the other end more than pleasantly surprised.  The film documents Depeche Mode’s highly successful and epic-scale world tour, ending with their 101st (hence the name of the film) and final show on the long tour.  Not only do we get to see Depeche Mode perform hits from popular albums Black Celebration and Music for the Masses, but we get follow a group of contest winners on their way to the show.  Only the way, Pennebaker and crew allow us  to see the band’s rabid fan base, the lead-up to their show at the Rose Bowl, and backstage interaction between band members, crew members, and many interactions between the young contest winners.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s laid back nature and the live performances featured throughout 101, I wouldn’t say that it made me a Depeche Mode fan, unfortunately.  I very much enjoyed a handful of songs and respect the fact that they were able to pack more than 60,000 rabid fans into the Rose Bowl, but unfortunately 80’s new wave and synthpop just isn’t my cup of tea.  Performances of “Strangelove”, “Everything Counts”, and the famous “Just Can’t Get Enough” were highlights in the film.  On top of terrific live performances and focus on the massive live gate in attendance at the Rose Bowl, Pennebaker has a knack for documenting what other filmmakers would consider mundane.  We are treated to band managers and crew discussing t-shirt bills, the live attendance numbers, arguing about whether the Rose Bowl is appropriate for a live music show of such large scale, etc., all of which makes the documentary feel that much more important compared to other contemporary music/concert films.  While I’m not the biggest fan of Depeche Mode, I can absolutely appreciate what Pennebaker, Hegedus, and Dawkins were going for with 101, and I can say without a doubt that Depeche Mode fans will get a lot out of this. Recommended.

The War Room (1993)the-war-room-movie-poster-1993-1020198303

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Starring: Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, Hether Beckel, George H.W. Bush

If there’s any one subject that is more fascinating behind-the-scenes than music, politics is absolutely it.  In The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus turn the camera to the New Hampshire Primary in the early 1990’s, specifically the campaign managers James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who are looking to pull out a big win for hopeful Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.  The War Room allows the audience to take a backstage look at attacks on Bill Clinton’s character, specifically the Gennifer Flowers scandal, as well as the other side of things with the false “No new taxes” promise by then-President George H.W. Bush.  Pennebaker and Hegedus show a world rarely seen by the public, especially in the early 1990’s, a world where few people had access to computers, and even less had access to the internet as we know it today.  We see frustrations, campaigns, event planning and coordination, and most importantly we get to see people acting like people.  The War Room takes a look a few very important figures, and paints them as people, not politicians, not campaign managers, just normal, (mostly) lovable people.

If you know anything about me at all, then it should come as no surprise for you that I absolutely adored The War Room.  This look at the behind-the-scenes marketing and coordination of a major American Primary is right up my alley in every possible sense.  Pennebaker and Hegedus manage to show tremendously important events in the 1992 Clinton Campaign, and yet everything is treated with the same weight and levity, whether it’s Gennifer Flowers claiming to have had a love affair with Senator Clinton, or whether it’s James Carville and George Stephanopoulos developing a rapport and joking with one another, and becoming excited and frustrated with certain revelations throughout the campaign.  The War Room is only ninety six minutes long, but I felt like I could have watched the events unfold for another ninety.  The time breezes by with the help of a razor sharp directorial eye from Pennebaker and Hegedus, lovable subjects in Clinton, Carville, and Stephanopoulos (as well as the entirety of the campaign office), and an inherently interesting and important topic in political campaigning.  Throughout the short run-time of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus manage to tick every box for me, making their Academy Award-nominated documentary one of their most personal and most important films, and easily my favorite documentary of the bunch. The War Room gets my highest recommendation.

dont-look-back-movie-poster-1967-1020144136Dont Look Back (1967)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Bob Dylan

Dont Look Back is quite possibly D.A. Pennebaker’s most critically acclaimed and culturally significant documentary, influencing the next fifty years of music videos, concert films, and documentaries as a whole. Pennebaker’s early film chronicles Bob Dylan’s 1965 London, UK tour, showing live performances, audience interaction, and focuses on Dylan’s inner-circle and on the young prodigy himself.  The film was so critically acclaimed and influential because nothing quite like it had ever been seen before.  Documentary films have been around since the birth of the medium, but nothing quite this raw, focusing solely on a highly acclaimed and incredibly popular cultural icon had ever been produced on this scale.  The film opens up with the music video that would influence generations, Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which shows the folk singer using a set of cue cards to convey the lyrics of the song to the audience, discarding them rapidly as the song goes on.  On top of the influential and groundbreaking music video, Pennebaker takes a behind the scenes look at Dylan’s tour, showing the folk legend verbally sparring with a TIME Magazine correspondent, interacting with other artists and journalists, signing autographs for young, adoring fans, and interacting with audiences at his lives shows on the tour.

Despite all the acclaimed and influential elements of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about the film.  To be blunt, Bob Dylan came off exactly how you would imagine a young, outspoken, successful artist might come across in their first major appearance on camera – Dylan was incredibly condescending, rude, and ambitious in his words to the point of pretension (a word I really don’t like to use).  Dylan’s condescension in nearly every appearance he made on screen had a tremendously negative effect on my viewing of the film.  As much as I appreciate the man and what he did for music as a whole, Dont Look Back only decreased my liking for Bob Dylan as a person.  I’m willing to accept the fact that it was because Dylan was young, naive, and influenced by the power he held over youth all over the Western world, but I still can’t entirely look past his behavior in the film.  Despite this, the film did absolutely have some incredibly memorable scenes, including a group of young girls excitedly meeting Dylan, with one exclaiming “pinch me – me dreams have come true!”.  The meetings between Dylan’s manager and journalists were also very interesting to watch unfold, as it’s an element most music documentaries seem to gloss over.  Dylan’s musical performances are highlights as well, as are his quips during the performances.  As much as I disliked him throughout the documentary, there’s no denying just how charismatic and charming the young Bob Dylan was.  When the credits rolled, I was left appreciating D.A. Pennebaker’s influential documentary, but left cold as far as the subject matter goes.  For fans of Bob Dylan, music journalism, and those who hold documentaries in high-esteem, I would implore you seek this film out. Otherwise, you may leave feeling the same way I did.  Dont Look Back is cautiously recommended.

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Doctober Feature #3: D.A. Pennebaker Rocks! Monterey Pop (1968), Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987), and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

D.A. Pennebaker is a legend in the documentary film-making game, making history with his early rockumentaries, he helped shape and influence an entire generation of filmmakers.  This and the next Doctober feature will take a look at the man and his most highly regarded films, none of which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past.  This first Doctober (#3) feature will take a look at his early concert films Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  The next feature (#4) will take a look at the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back, The War Room, and 101.

51lgm6vwcgLMonterey Pop (1968)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mama’s & the Papa’s, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, The Animals, Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela

D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop has influenced the documentation of concerts and music festivals more than most people could ever imagine.  Coming just one short year after his incredibly successful and acclaimed Dont Look Back, which chronicled musician Bob Dylan (and will be covered in the next Doctober feature), Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop made an immediate and lasting impression on rock journalism and documentary filmmaking.  The film chronicles the Monterey Pop Festival, which was held in Monterey, California in June 1967, featuring some of rock music’s most successful and influential musicians including Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Otis Redding.  The film captures the magic of the festival, the performances, and the social environment of the late-1960’s.  Monterey Pop is a time capsule, and still holds up as an incredible piece of documentary film-making to this very day.

Highlights of Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop include a terrific performance of “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (or “Feelin’ Groovy”) by Simon & Garfunkel, an incredibly energetic and impressive performance by Jefferson Airplane, an awkward but lovable performance of The Who’s “My Generation”, the last major public performance by the soon to be deceased Otis Redding, whose performance will be chronicled a little later in the feature, as well as Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire and smashing it to pieces after his rendition of “Wild Thing”.  Hendrix’s performance will be elaborated on and covered more in depth in Pennebaker’s short film following Monterey Pop.  After the highlights of all these incredible bands playing, we are treated to a lengthy performance by the great Ravi Shankar (albeit maybe a little too lengthy), as Pennebaker’s camera floats around the festival grounds, showing people young and old alike enjoying themselves and taking in the sights and sounds.  Monterey Pop is an incredibly effective time capsule that still feels cool and relevant to this day, it features timeless rock and pop music, high-energy performances, iconic moments, and wonderful visuals.  If you’re a fan of classic rock, concert documentaries, or somebody interested in 1960’s counter-culture, this film comes highly recommended.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986)Shake!_Otis_at_Monterey_FilmPoster

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Starring: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding

If there’s one thing Monterey Pop doesn’t do to satisfy viewers, it’s show more of the incredibly energetic performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Luckily, D.A. Pennebaker and partner Chris Hegedus managed to capture the performance in it’s entirety, and eventually released it with subsequent video releases of Monterey Pop.  Jimi Plays Monterey is only 48 minutes long, but manages to perfectly capture the spirit of the Monterey Pop Festival, and leaves you wanting even more incredible rock performances.  

Jimi Plays Monterey begins with an art performance by speed artist Denny Dent, painting a terrific portrait of Hendrix himself, setting the tone for the short film about to roll on.  The film then starts with some narration about Jimi Hendrix and about the Monterey Pop Festival, which is something new because Monterey Pop features no narration at all.  Jimi and his bandmates are all ridiculously cool on stage, even to today’s standards.  Jimi, rocking an incredible feather boa, plays excellent renditions of “Foxy Lady”, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”, and my absolute favorite song in the set, “Hey Joe”.  After this incredible and eclectic set, Jimi treats us to the very memorable performance of “Wild Thing”, followed up by the star-making antics by Hendrix.  There’s an anecdote that says The Who’s Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix both refused to go on after one another, and The Who ended up performing first after a lucky coin toss.  Hendrix, not wanting to be topped by The Who’s own guitar-smashing antics, decided to one-up Townshend by lighting his guitar on fire and in the process created one of the most iconic rock moments in the history of the genre.  It’s pretty obvious who won in that regard, I think.  In order to get the most out of the Monterey Pop documentary, I absolutely suggest you seek out Jimi Plays Monterey.  It’s short, fun, and wild.  Highly recommended.


The talented Otis Redding performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

BONUS: Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding

D.A. Pennebaker got lucky in a sense with his documenting of the Monterey Pop Festival: The festival would end up being Otis Redding’s final major performance before he was killed in a plane crash at the age of 26, leaving the music world stunned.  D.A. Pennebaker’s Shake! Otis at Monterey was released a year after Jimi Plays Monterey, and has also been included in subsequent releases of Monterey Pop.  The film is only 18 short minutes long, but manages to give an idea of just how charismatic and talented Otis Redding was as a musician and performer.  During the run-time of the short film, Otis plays an incredible rendition of his famous song “Respect”, a terrific cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and ends with his song “Try a Little Tenderness” as the camera roams the festival grounds, showing loving couple, crying teenage girls, and people generally having the time of their lives at the Monterey Pop Festival.  Otis’ performance is incredibly energetic and had me wanting much, much more.  There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that the world lost something truly special when Otis Redding was taken from us.  If you’re a fan of the legend, or want to get familiar with the music of Redding, then give Shake! Otis at Monterey a shot.  It’s short, sweet, and you’ll be humming his songs for the rest of your day.  Highly recommended.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)MPW-54772

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: David Bowie, Trevor Bolder, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Angela Bowie

D.A. Pennebaker knows a special appearance when he sees one, which is exactly what Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ended up being.  David Bowie (who I admittedly don’t know much about) had reportedly grown tired of his eccentric Ziggy Stardust character, and had decided that this outing would be his final public appearance as the character.  D.A. Pennebaker had something of a lucky streak for making documentary film history after his chronicling of Bob Dylan in the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back.  Alongside that film was Pennebaker’s hip look at one of the first ever rock music festivals, the final major performance of Otis Redding, and the star-making outing by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the documentary legend captured one of the first ever “retirement” performances in the history of the medium.  Little did most people know that David Bowie would quickly resurface as more of an established solo act and continue to make glam rock history.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars features incredible performances of famous Bowie songs, including “Changes”, “Cracked Actor”, “Space Oddity”, Suffragette City”, “White Light”, and my absolute favorite “Moonage Daydream”.  The film features incredible lighting and atmosphere, as was standard for David Bowie performances of the time.  Bowie himself goes through multiple wardrobe changes throughout the performance, all of which are visually interesting and fit the highly eccentric Ziggy Stardust perfectly.  Between the song performances, we are occasionally treated to David Bowie and his band backstage, getting ready to perform and just generally hanging out.  A scene showing Angela Bowie, David’s equally interesting and eccentric wife, coming backstage to wish the band luck and interact with them is one of the film’s odd, but sweet, highlights.  Towards the end of the set, Bowie announces this is the “last show he’ll ever do”, to which the audience very loudly reacts with both joy and sorrow.  Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars come on for an encore after the announcement, playing “Rock N Roll Suicide” one last time, and the film soon fades to black.  For somebody who didn’t know much about David Bowie (apparently D.A. Pennebaker was in the same boat as me), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars packs a huge punch.  The performances and visuals here are incredibly memorable, and I would go as far as saying I’m now a David Bowie fan.  If you’re interested in David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, or the idea of the “retirement gig” as a whole, check out Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars.  The fun, quick concert documentary comes recommended.

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