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Lauded documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker dead at 94

D.A. Pennebaker, the Oscar-winning documentary maker whose historic contributions to American culture and politics included immortalizing a young Bob Dylan in "Don't Look Back" and capturing the spin behind Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in "The War Room," has died. He was 94.

Pennebaker, who received an honorary Academy Award in 2013, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Long Island, his son, Frazer Pennebaker said in an email.

Pennebaker was a leader among a generation of filmmakers in the 1960s who took advantage of such innovations as handheld cameras and adopted an intimate, spontaneous style known as cinéma vérité. As an assistant to pioneer Robert Drew, Pennebaker helped invent the modern political documentary, "Primary," a revelatory account of John F. Kennedy's 1960 victory in Wisconsin over fellow Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

He on went to make or assist on dozens of films, from an early look at Jane Fonda to an Emmy-nominated portrait of Elaine Stritch to a documentary about a contentious debate between Norman Mailer and a panel of feminists ("Town Bloody Hall").

Widely admired and emulated, Pennebaker was blessed with patience, sympathy, curiosity, the journalist's art of setting his subjects at ease, the novelist's knack for finding the revealing detail and the photographer's eye for compelling faces and images. When reducing vast amounts of raw footage into a finished film, Pennebaker said, "The one barometer I believe in is boredom. The minute people start to lose interest, that's it."

Pennebaker parted from Drew in the mid-'60s and became a top filmmaker in his own right with the 1967 release "Don't Look Back," among the first rock documentaries to receive serious critical attention. It follows Dylan on a 1965 tour of England, featuring Joan Baez, Donovan, Allen Ginsberg and others.

After Dylan, Pennebaker again recorded a musical landmark with "Monterey Pop," a documentary of the 1967 California gathering that was rock's first major festival and featured such current and future stars as Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Pennebaker not only captured some of the rock era's most dynamic performances but the crowds who took them in, including a close-up of an awed Mama Cass during Joplin's explosive "Ball and Chain."

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Pennebaker also made a documentary about a 1969 concert in Toronto with John Lennon and a pickup band featuring Eric Clapton. He made films about performers he admired and some he came to enjoy, like Depeche Mode, whose dedicated fans warmed him to their music.

In the 1990s, Pennebaker returned to politics with "The War Room," co-directed by Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus. This time, the stars weren't the candidates, but those behind the scenes. The filmmakers were granted limited access to Clinton, so the documentary focused on the campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, as political strategists and future media stars James Carville and George Stephanopoulos guide the young Arkansas governor's march to the White House.

Pennebaker's later films were made in partnership with Hegedus, whom he married in 1982.

Pennebaker was a longtime resident of Sag Harbor, an oceanside community on the eastern end of Long Island.

Donn Alan Pennebaker, whose father was a commercial photographer, was born in 1925 in Evanston, Illinois. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Yale University before going into filmmaking and used his college skills to help develop portable camera equipment used in documentaries and to design a computerized airport reservation system.

He completed his first short, "Daybreak Express," in 1953, combining a pulsing Duke Ellington score with a jazzy, shadowy montage of an elevated New York City subway station and its passengers. He also wrote and painted and worked briefly in advertising.

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