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D. A. Pennebaker, 1925-2019

Last week saw the death at the age of 94 of D. A. Pennebaker, one of the great innovators of documentary film making.

In films like Primary (1960), which documented John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s respective campaigns in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary election, and The War Room (1993), about Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 1992, Pennebaker did for the documentary what New Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson were doing for journalism. He didn’t simply record events, he gave you some feel for them too.

What does this have to do with Minnesota? Well, in 1965 Pennebaker shot possibly his most famous film, Don’t Look Back. This chronicled Bob Dylan’s tour of England which opened on April 30th at Sheffield City Hall. In the audience that might was my dad, then a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

In Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker captured Dylan as he was transitioning from his ‘protest’ period to the ‘electric poet’ of the three albums he recorded in 1965 and 1966 – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde – which many still regard as the creative peak of his career.

On this tour, he was still playing acoustic, his controversial accompaniment by a full rock n’ roll band would come the following year. The set contained some of the protest classics – ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’, ‘With God on Our Side’, and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. But there were new, personal songs like ‘To Ramona’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, and ‘She Belongs to Me’, along with songs that defied categorization – ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. The denim shirt and cap had gone, replaced by shades, a black roll neck, and leather coat. Woody Guthrie never looked that snappy.

For a while in the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan, born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, was one of the dominant cultural forces in the world. Cher and The Byrds had hits with his songs, and other bands, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones tried to sound like him. Knock off Dylans like Leonard Cohen proliferated. Probably no other Minnesotan – not F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, or Prince – has ever exerted so much influence. And a large part of that is the image of Dylan as the impossibly cool mixture of poet and rock star which D. A. Pennebaker presented to the world in Don’t Look Back.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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