If you want to ask someone about the relationship of music to documentaries, D.A. Pennebaker would be the universally acknowledged go-to guy. The 77-year-old filmmaker has made plenty of films that aren't about music, including the Academy Award winning The War Room, an insider's look at Bill Clinton's '92 presidential campaign he directed with his filmmaking partner and wife Chris Hegedus, and which showed at last year's DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. But Pennebaker is probably best known for his music films: Don't Look Back, which chronicles Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England; Monterey Pop, about the legendary music festival; Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a record of David Bowie's final performance as his androgynous space rocker alter ego; and Down From the Mountain, featuring the old-time country-inspired performers from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Armed with this lifetime of experience, Pennebaker has curated a series of films for a DoubleTake sidebar, "Score! Music and Documentary," which explores the use of music in real-life stories. These two dozens films run the gamut from an examination of a nursing home for opera singers to jazz-tinged World War II propaganda to a look at a certain mock metal band that likes to "turn it up to 11." Speaking by phone last week from his New York office, Pennebaker revealed that many of the films he's programmed have a personal appeal for him.
"There's a whole group of films that I used to see periodically when I'd go to the Museum of Modern Art on Saturdays, and I never see them anywhere else anymore," he said. "They were short, musical films--it was like listening to a record, but they were a film. I thought that it's just sad that people can't see these anymore. So I thought it would be nice to have them at a festival ... and then maybe they'd get some sort of new life pumped into them."
The series also includes some of Pennebaker's own work. Besides the seminal Don't Look Back, DoubleTake attendees can view three rarely seen shorts, including Pennebaker's first film, Daybreak Express, a five-minute jazz poem about New York's elevated trains set to a Duke Ellington song. "Jazz was where the excitement lay for all of us kids," said Pennebaker, who grew up in Chicago in the late '30s. "Suddenly every high school kid in Chicago wanted to play jazz--there was a whole world awakening and we were dying to get to it."
Pennebaker's love of jazz is also reflected in his choices for "Score!" which include Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser, Charlotte Zwerin's 1989 portrait of the great N.C.-born pianist; Jazz Dance, Roger Tilton's 1954 short about dance floor acrobatics in a New York nightclub (stunningly shot by Pennebaker's future partner, Richard Leacock); and Len Lye's Musical Poster, a 1940 animated British Ministry of Information short warning against the dangers of gossiping, all set to wartime jazz tunes.
Although Pennebaker at one time toyed with the idea of becoming a musician, he went to college instead and became an engineer. He credits a meeting with painter-turned-filmmaker Francis Thompson, and Thompson's 1958 film NY, NY (also in the DoubleTake series)--a modern art-inspired montage of a day in the life of the city--with inspiring him to pursue filmmaking. "I learned how to look through a camera with Francis--he was an artist," Pennebaker said. "At the time I still thought of myself as an engineer looking for a job. When I first saw Francis' movie, that did it--I just saw that filmmaking was worth a life."
"Score!" also includes forays into documentary-hybrid films, like 1993's stunning Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Francois Girard's innovative exploration of the life of the legendary classical pianist. Gould is portrayed by an actor at several points in the film, but Girard also mixes Gould's voice, writings, performances and ideas liberally throughout to produce an amazingly nontraditional yet cohesive portrait. Also on the bill is Rob Reiner's 1984 masterpiece This is Spinal Tap, a satirical look at an inept heavy metal band that almost singlehandedly launched the genre known as "mockumentary."
Kicking off the music series on Thursday night will be a live performance of a film score by Hoboken rock pioneers Yo La Tengo, whose ability to forge dreamlike, evocative soundscapes is a perfect complement to the mysterious and other-worldly underwater films of French documentarian Jean Painleve. Pennebaker has known Yo La Tengo's drummer, Georgia Hubley, since she was a child, thanks to his friendship with Hubley's late parents, filmmakers/animators John and Faith Hubley. "I thought this was an interesting idea," Pennebaker said of the live score, "because you've got people all over the country now with ways of making film, and you also have bands playing in garages who are interested in scoring. You have a whole new way of putting film into an audience that's kind of intriguing, and if you can see it work someplace, maybe people would pick up on it. Plus, Yo La Tengo is terrific."
Fittingly, Pennebaker is in the midst of editing another music-related film, Only the Strong Survive, a contemporary look at R&B performers Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore and Carla & Rufus Thomas, which will perhaps grace the DoubleTake screens next year. Pennebaker's commitment to music and documentary--and DoubleTake--continues unabated.
"Here it's different," he said of the festival. "You're going to see films that you've never seen before and you might never see, and you're going to them with a whole lot of people who have the same expectancy. So the possibilities are, I think, terrific. I don't know of another festival in the U.S. that's like that."
"Score! Music and Documentary Symposium," a panel discussion about music and its relationship to storytelling, featuring D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman and Ric Burns, takes place Friday, April 5, at 4 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.