Director D.A. Pennebaker Looks Back On His Career Filming Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, And David Bowie

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

There are music documentarians and then there is D.A. Pennebaker. Outside of maybe Martin Scorsese, no one in the history of the medium has done as much to shape the way in which musicians are captured on tape. From his era-defining behind-the-scenes profiles to the many, many iconic onstage concert chronicles, Pennebaker’s lens has captured it all. In some respects, he’s become very nearly as influential as the many subjects he’s chosen to profile.

Since he’s filmed a number of the most celebrated and impactful artists of all-time for well over fifty years and more, Pennebaker has been privy to some of the most indelible moments in the history of music. Bob Dylan dressing down a Time Magazine reporter in his film Don’t Look Back in 1965, Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, John Lennon at the Peace Concert in Toronto in 1969, David Bowie bidding his adieu as Ziggy Stardust in 1973. It is to our great benefit that Pennebaker remained curious enough to follow these iconoclasts around. Many of our long-standing perceptions of who these artists are as people have been shaped by the fact that at one point they were in the same room with his camera.

I had the chance to talk to Pennebaker about his life, career, and some of the incredible people he’s managed to document along the way.

Your relationship with Bob Dylan began in 1965. What were your initial impressions of him and how did you find yourself in his orbit?

I had been asked if I wanted to make a tour film with him by his manager Albert Grossman so I went along with the assumption that Albert wanted some kind of musical film to help promote the various things that [Dylan] was doing. We flew together to London and I really didn’t have much of a chance to talk to him before that very much. I met him and we talked one morning down in the Village and that was it. When I spent time with him I kind of got interested in the way he talked about things. I sort of thought it’d be more interesting to make a film about him as a person rather than try and make a music film and so that’s what I started to do.

Did you ever get the sense as you followed him around during the filming of Don’t Look Back that he was playing a part or keeping some of who he was to himself?

Well, we all do in that kind of situation to some extent. I thought he was clearly a person trying to decide what kind of creative person he was. He was trying to figure it out I think. Although, again, we all are to some extent so that’s not an incredible idea. But I was interested in him because he reminded me a little bit of… I’d read a book the year before that was a collection of [Lord] Byron’s letters to and from Byron. I found them kind of interesting because he kind of set up a base for intellectual Englishmen by way of his poetry and when he went with [Percy] Shelley to Italy, a lot of the English poets and intellectuals all came down there because they wanted to hang out with him. I thought as I read these that if somebody had been making a film of that gathering down in Speiza people would still be looking at it because it wouldn’t matter if it was a good or a bad film, because he was still interesting. In a way, I had a sense that Dylan would still be interesting a long time after this film was made.

In Don’t Look Back it seems that you pay a lot of attention to Dylan and his fight against burgeoning perceptions of him within the media. Was that a conscious interest that you had or just a formative battle that Dylan was waging in that moment?

Well, it seemed to me the way it works is that when you arrive somewhere and you’re a celebrity, all of the news journals send somebody to talk to you, or do a story or whatever it is and as a rule, they don’t know much about you than anybody else. The idea of having to explain things to people who didn’t understand and wouldn’t understand what you’re talking about was very boring to Dylan and he wanted to make fun of them. It wasn’t that he wanted to make a circus out of the entire event particularly. I think that came later when people got wind of the possibilities of a press circus and particularly in France. It seemed to me that this was just something that he took for granted and didn’t like much. It was what he called, “throwing pearls in front of swine.” I didn’t take it very seriously. I didn’t think that it was the most interesting material that I would find.

Let’s talk about Eat The Document where you followed Dylan again around the UK in 1966. Can you describe the feeling in the building at that infamous concert in Manchester where he was shouted down by an audience member as a Judas for going electric?

I didn’t hear any of that. I was either backstage or onstage and a lot of that was going on outside. We had another camera on this and they were filming people outside and a number of various people did have a problem with electric [music] but I didn’t hear any of it and it didn’t seem to me that very much changed in terms of the whole audience.

As you watched back the footage that you captured, what did you think of his performances of say “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man?” They almost seem spiteful.

He brought that sense to the performance but I thought they were wonderful the way they did them.

What about that infamous scene of Dylan goofing around with John Lennon in the back of a cab that I actually think was left on the cutting room floor? What was going on there?

Yeah, well, John was hanging out with us and we had a car with a driver that we knew and we were just sort of driving around. Dylan was really fond of Lennon, more so than any of the other Beatles and John liked the idea of imitating the Yankee accent… it was like a little thing between them that they liked to do whenever they got a chance.

Was anyone on anything?

You know I wasn’t keeping track of drugs. I suspect that there were some but I didn’t actually ever see anybody do any and I myself couldn’t do them because I was really too busy dealing with the camera. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of the terrible problems that drugs could bring up, I was actually thinking, ‘If Dylan could stay up all night and write 20 songs whatever he was doing was kind of worthwhile.’ Also, if you got into it with me I would have told you that you pay a big price for that I suspect because I knew what had happened with Janis [Joplin] later. I don’t know. It’s hard to say.

Let’s move onto the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. How did you go about capturing that event?

Well, I was asked if I wanted to do a film on a concert that was going to happen and you know, the problem up until then was that people had a hard time filming concerts because there was no sync camera that you could have carried around. If you wanted to sync camera you had to make a setup that involved two or three people and a fixed camera on a tripod or on some sort of a base and that meant that you were limited. The concert had to come to the camera.

I knew that the one at Newport had been done with a 35mm camera and it was a fixed camera so all you could do was get the performance from a kind of distance but you couldn’t go backstage or deal with the audience particularly except on a special basis. I was very kind of uncertain how to do it so when we got there I had a number of people who had been working with me, but none of them were official cameramen except [Richard] Leacock and so when it came time to film stuff I just handed out cameras in the morning, took in film at night, and had it processed. Everybody shot pretty much everything that they wanted to shoot.

What was your impression of Jimi Hendrix’s performance?

Someone had told me that he’d seen Hendrix perform and said that he was a really good blues guitar player and he sets himself on fire. I thought, ‘Well, that’s not the kind of blues guitar that I’m used to.’ I was curious to see what the heck would happen and I still remember that opening thing where he did the first song [“Killing Floor”] and I was knocked out. I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ We had a little light on the side of the stage that [Bob] Neuwirth was in charge of and whenever the red bulb was on that was the song that we would record.

We tried to save film as much as possible and there were so many people coming into the concert that we figured we’d shoot one song for each band and then when Hendrix came on, and Otis [Redding] and a few other people — The Who I think — we just turned that light on and never turned it off. We got pretty much full performances of people that we knew we probably weren’t going to use in the film but then later when we bought the film out we just did everybody that we had film of and pretty much covered the whole Monterey Festival.

Can you describe how the crowd reacted when Hendrix doused his guitar in lighter fluid and lit it on fire?

They were funny. A lot of them had never seen anything like this before and they were used to things like the transcendent music of the [Jefferson] Airplane or The Mamas and the Papas so this came as quite a shock. There were people, I think I tried to catch film of them from the stage, who thought that the whole thing was kind of disgusting. They just didn’t know how to express their feelings about it. I suspect that later on when they thought about it and listened to the music again they understood that this had been an incredible musical event that Hendrix put on. And Hendrix was such a mild person. Everyone thought he was some fierce creature from the depths but later I got to know him in New York and he did sound for me when I was shooting Janis [Joplin] for her last gig with Big Brother and the Holding Company downtown on 8th Street.

You mentioned before that you kept the red light on all the way for Otis Redding. Can you describe what it was like to see him live and up close? His presence on film is extraordinary.

Well, I’d gone to see him before at the [Whisky A] Go-Go in LA and that was the first time that I’d actually seen that band in action and it was so amazing to hear it. It wasn’t what you would normally associate with white pop music because it came out of a different place and I thought what he did there was just in incredible. And then after I had finished editing it, he went into that lake up in Wisconsin and a guy I knew was actually on the plane with him and survived. But anyway, the whole end of that [performance] was such an amazing thing and I thought that he was one of the most fantastic performers at that festival, but so was Janis! I mean, they all kind of knew each other but they had never played in such a large grouping before and that was kind of interesting for everybody. It was like some sort of New Year’s Eve for pop music.

Fast forward a couple of years to the Toronto Peace Festival. What was the basic premise behind that event?

Well, when we were in England there was a Jerry Lee Lewis film that we saw that was just kinda wonderful and we kept thinking, ‘If we could get a really good audience for him and whoever else was in that music league, it would be a great film to do,’ but then everybody just went home and forgot about it. Then I heard that this was going to happen and that John [Lennon] would come over if I would film it so I did.

Obviously, John Lennon’s performance with Eric Clapton and Yoko Ono stands out from everything else, and not exactly in a good way. What was it like interacting with Lennon at that moment?

He was very protective of Yoko I think. You know, he told me [at the time] that he was ‘skin-pricking’ which I assume had something to do with heroin or some other drug. He was very vulnerable. He was very troubled, or at least he seemed troubled to me. I don’t know what it was whether it was the break up of the Beatles or his attachment to Yoko, I don’t know what it was, but I kind of felt badly for him and I did some stuff just to help out. He and Yoko wanted to shoot a lot of films and they set up a little place and made about a half dozen little films. I don’t know whatever happened to them. At the time anyway, I felt like he needed something and I didn’t know what to get him and it wasn’t for me to try and deliver it.

What did you make of Yoko Ono’s contributions?

That concert, for me, and especially the way that Yoko ended it with the strange kind of voices that she did, I thought that at the end when everybody walked offstage with the sound of the speakers still going, it was just so strange. I thought, ‘This is the end of the Beatles.’ So when I made that film I left everything in. I wanted it to be that, but it was hard to distribute in many parts of America. They did not want to hear Yoko and they weren’t interested in the end of the Beatles. Everything I had in mind was too “artful” for the general public which rock and roll often is. It didn’t do well theatrically, but I always thought it was an amazing film.

Watching back, it’s hard not to think that Little Richard blew everyone off the stage with his set from earlier in the day.

Little Richard was amazing, I showed the film at MGM and Little Richard came to see it and afterwards he hugged me and said it was the best thing he’d ever done. I got very fond of Little Richard very suddenly because he seemed so intrigued by the idea of a performance that before he’d been uncertain about. He didn’t think he was going to get paid enough money or whatever, but all that disappeared when I saw him.

Were you at all aware of who Alice Cooper was before filming him in Toronto?

No I didn’t. I met him and we’ve since become friends. At the time, I had no idea what was going to happen on the stage and there were a number of wonderful performances that we did shoot, but never really did much anything with them.

What did you think about the moment when Cooper chucked the live chicken into the audience?

I wasn’t prepared for that.

Four years later you linked up with David Bowie to create the film The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust. How did that project come together?

RCA was building a sort of videodisc and they wanted to use a little bit of David to sort of promote it so they wanted me to go over and shoot 20 minutes of his performance. I went over there and I really didn’t know who he was. I was aware of his songs on the radio, but [at the time] we were on a raft going down the Mississippi River [shooting another film] so we weren’t paying attention to much of anything except dodging the riverboats as we went.

What did you make of Bowie when you arrived in England?

When I met him, I knew right away that we should make a film with him. We only had three cameras, but it was such an amazing concert. There were maybe two or three thousand people there and they would all sing backup for him when he did “Watch That Man.” He kinda knew that they would do it because they had been following him around for a while, but the effect was just stunning. It was really operatic.

What happened after you filmed that show, because it didn’t make its debut until years later?

RCA didn’t want the film and nobody had any particular ideas about it so I just went ahead and made a 35mm print and a full feature film. [Bowie] heard that I was doing it and he came and listened to it and he said, ‘Oh, I’ll help you,’ so he came and stayed for about two months in New York. We’d go down to the Hit Factory every night at midnight because they’d close down then and then from midnight to five in the morning we’d work on fixing the tracks. He was terrific and a terrific filmmaker.

What was your impression of him during his Ziggy Stardust period because there’s a lot of rumor and legend that swirl around his persona at that time?

After the concert, I came back to New York and he was into drugs really heavily and he appeared here and said he wanted me to go out west with him. I could tell on the phone that he was quite heavily drugged and so I didn’t go along and stayed and worked on the film. Then he got out of the drugs after some period of time and when he came to the Hit Factory to work on the film together, he was as normal as I was. That was a period when I got to know him pretty well. He was a hard worker, but musically, I could tell at times that he would disappear into his own head.

He was listening to a lot of salsa then. He loved that music and there was a dance club on East 86th Street up on the second floor and we would go there and you would pay a dancer to dance with you and she would teach you how to do the salsa and stuff. He would just sit at the table and listen and I could tell that he was making music in his head. It was fantastic to watch him and talk to him and he was a very unique guy to get along with if he was interested in what you were doing, otherwise he wouldn’t pay much attention to you.

As a filmmaker, I’m sure you appreciated the amount of theatricality he brought to the stage.

He understood that more than most of the people I’d seen in California and Monterey whose idea of a performance was to put a lot of amplifiers on a stage, put on their overalls and make a lot of noise. He had a fantastic sense of theater which was interesting to me. You know, when I was working on the film Dylan called me up and he said, ‘What’s David Bowie like?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to wait and see the film because it’s really hard to describe it.’ He was as intrigued by the theater as I was and I didn’t want to lose that. It seemed to me that he’d written songs almost for this kind of performance. It wasn’t that he was writing just to get a song into the songbook; he saw the whole thing as a staged event. He was the first person I ever worked with like that and it was wondrous.