- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

From Bob Dylan to Depeche Mode — and pretty much everyone in between — D.A. Pennebaker has documented some of the most cutting-edge movements of pop music in the 20th century, and he’s still working nonstop. His latest film, “Only the Strong Survive,” released yesterday in select area theaters, is the latest in a long line of music documentaries, a genre he more or less invented. Co-directed with his wife, Chris Hegedus, it revisits some of the great soul singers of the 1960s and ‘70s who have drifted into obscurity and penury or, like Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler, found success in surprise second careers.

Mr. Pennebaker gave the world its first intimate glimpse of Mr. Dylan, then and still a reclusive folk icon, in 1967’s “Don’t Look Back,” which trailed the singer on his 1965 tour of England.

The filmmaker was at the three-day Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he captured electrifying performances by the Who, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. “Monterey Pop,” released a year later, is widely considered a watershed moment in documentary filmmaking and one of the first true “concert movies.”

The Chicago-born Mr. Pennebaker, who’s currently teaching a documentary film workshop at Yale University, also captured the young David Bowie on his 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour, the front end of the androgynous glam-rock movement that was popular throughout that decade and into the ‘80s.

With 1988’s “101,” co-directed with Miss Hegedus and David Dawkins, he filmed trendy synth-pop band Depeche Mode’s tour-ending Rose Bowl concert, as well as the cross-country travels of a bus packed with fans who had won a contest to see the show.

Mr. Pennebaker was also tapped in 2000 by moviemaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen and music producer T-Bone Burnett to film a special concert at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium — a gathering of the musicians who performed on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which, having sold 1 million copies and earned an Album of the Year Grammy, heralded an unexpected revival of traditional bluegrass music.

In a recent phone conversation, Mr. Pennebaker and Miss Hegedus reflected on these wide-ranging accomplishments, explaining why they’re both consistently drawn to live music and why, with “Only the Strong Survive,” they felt compelled to pick up the thread of the ongoing story of soul music.

Along with his partners at a production company called Drew Associates, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and Robert Drew, he was a pioneer in the ‘50s of cinema verite, a style of filmmaking that tries to capture real-life events as unobtrusively and as naturally as possible.

As subject matter for cinema verite, a musical performance can’t be beat.

“Music is its own language,” Mr. Pennebaker says. “It’s one of the things we can deal with in film without having to write a big script.”

When music is being played live, he says he’s drawn like a “moth to a flame.”

“There’s always something amazing about watching people who know how to do something very well,” adds Miss Hegedus. “Really good musicians have an innate ability that can’t be faked. That makes it even more powerful to watch and to get on camera.”

Mr. Pennebaker’s fascination with music started in childhood in 1930s Chicago, where jazz music, as heard on what were crudely known as “race records,” was flourishing.

The fascination carried over into his professional career. In his “first real film,” 1953’s “Daybreak Express,” a five-minute documentary on the destruction of an elevated subway in New York City, Mr. Pennebaker creatively employed the music of Duke Ellington.

“I felt that music was somehow the passkey to somewhere I wanted to go,” says Mr. Pennebaker, a self-described “frustrated musician.” He likens his job as a documentarian to “playing a camera with a group of musicians.”

On meeting the late Mr. Ellington at the Brill Building, the storied music publishing hub in Manhattan’s music district, Mr. Pennebaker showed him the short film and received the jazz legend’s blessing for the project.

So how did a jazz enthusiast come to embrace so many different styles of modern pop music?

“Stravinsky is not far from Ellington, is not far from Dylan,” Mr. Pennebaker explains. “You just internalize the music.”

When he first met Mr. Dylan, he had only heard one of his songs, but, after a meeting at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, they got on famously and together hatched one of the most enduring music video documents in pop history.

“Dylan came up with that ‘pile of cards’ idea,” he says. “I thought it was fantastic.”

The “pile of cards” idea involved Mr. Dylan displaying, and then casually tossing, cue cards with lyrical fragments of his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The unforgettable scene, as filmed in “Don’t Look Back,” was later copied by the pop-rock band INXS and parodied in the Tim Robbins movie, “Bob Roberts.”

“I liked his music and I liked his attitude,” he says of Mr. Dylan. “It reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac,” the bohemian 1950s Beat novelist.

Shortly after the Dylan documentary came out, Mr. Pennebaker found himself in the middle of the Monterey Pop Festival in Northern California, a groundbreaking event that presaged an even bigger festival in upstate New York two years later.

“I knew it was something monumental taking place,” he says, “but you never have any idea of where things are gonna go.” His films are “like children: You put clothes on their back, feed them and put them out the door. You film what’s there, and you do it as well as you can.”

In the early ‘70s, when Mr. Pennebaker was pushing 50, he says he found glam-rock “beguiling” and jumped at the chance to film David Bowie during his high-androgyny, Ziggy Stardust alter ego phase.

“Between Bowie and [T. Rex frontman] Marc Bolan, they raised a kind of street cry into a grand opera,” he says. “I was really impressed by the whole sound of it.”

While Mr. Pennebaker and Miss Hegedus have long hewn to pop’s cutting edge, in recent years they’ve been tunneling back in time. In “Down From the Mountain” (2000), they focused on the aging bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.

Now, in “Only the Strong Survive,” the filmmakers, along with rock journalist Roger Friedman, track down some of the pioneers of Memphis-style soul music, including Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam Moore and Isaac Hayes.

Like the acclaimed documentary, “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999), in which ethnic musicologist and guitarist Ry Cooder assembled a group of veteran Cuban musicians to record an album, “Only the Strong Survive” attempts to spotlight aging legends in their natural habitat in the hope of galvanizing new interest among viewers who have forgotten or never heard their music.

“The thing that interested me about ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ was that, although the filming wasn’t particularly unorthodox, the music was terrific,” Mr. Pennebaker says. “I thought it was a one-time event and wouldn’t happen again. We hadn’t had that happen since Monterey, and it made us eager to try it out with something else.”

Miramax Films, which funded “Only the Strong Survive,” eyed “BVSC” as a potential distribution model, explains Miss Hegedus, but she and her husband got involved “because we love these musicians.”

“Those people were so wonderful. They took us in like we were their relatives,” says Mr. Pennebaker. “When I watch it now, I still get chills on my spine.”

They would ideally like the film to kick-start a revival of soul music, akin to the renewed enthusiasm for bluegrass stimulated by “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Mr. Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Union Station and other bluegrass artists subsequently toured the country on the strength of that soundtrack and the Pennebaker-Hegedus documentary.

A Memphis Soul reunion tour, perhaps?

“That’s what we’d really like to see — this whole group go out on tour like ‘Down From the Mountain’ and make some money for themselves,” Mr. Pennebaker says. “That’s our hope.”

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