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DA Pennebaker's 'Company: Original Cast Album'

By Eric Simonson

I guess it wasn't until I started making documentary films that I realized the prospect of failure was so acute. There's no guarantee that what you start out filming will be as captivating as you imagine. And the more stripped down the style, the higher the risk of failure. That's exactly why I so admire the documentary films of the '60s.

I'm referring, of course, to the classic cinema vérité works of Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers. It's what I grew up on in the '60s and '70s: the filmmaker as proverbial fly on the wall. Human behavior, the subtleties of expression--what is said or, more importantly, what is not said--all leave faint but powerful signals that dictate the content of the film. It's gutsy work; no narration to fall back on, no interviews to string one cut to another--just the naked hand-held camera and the subject.

My favorite film of this ilk isn't the most life-transforming, but it may be the most entertaining. I first saw Pennebaker's Company: Original Cast Album when I was a teenager. I came across it quite by accident one night on PBS (I think) when there was nothing else on TV, and I found myself immediately captivated by its raw, microscopic look at artists under pressure.

This now cult-status film chronicles the 24-hour period it took to put down the cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company, which had just opened on Broadway. Company itself is an innovative, but flawed tour-de-force--a musical with complicated songs and a temporal story about "modern" relationships. At the time of the filming, 1970, Sondheim was a cocky young maverick on the verge of transforming the American musical. His presence on screen shows as much: He furrows his brow at a singer's shortcomings, frets over a single note change, and generally struggles with the intransigence of collaboration. Though we get a rare glimpse of this young genius in the early part of his career, the film is most famous for the Elaine Stritch meltdown at the climax of the film. Here, we watch cringingly as she tries to muster up the proper vocal balance for a climactic song. It's four in the morning, and it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion; you can't take your eyes off her as she flagellates herself, take after awful take. And, more importantly, we're never sure what the outcome will be.

The Film Gods must have been watching over Pennebaker that day. He had it all: interesting characters, a compelling subject and a great third act. Add to that the huge bonus of great music sung by amazing talent, and you not only get an enjoyable 60 minutes of entertainment, but also a film that, in my mind, accomplishes the rare feat of being a better version than its source. However brilliant the musical Company, it never rises above its weak and threadbare storyline. Pennebaker's film, however, keeps the great songs, and replaces a lifeless plot with a much more compelling story: artists on the brink of failure...who succeed.


Eric Simonson is the director of On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom and On A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, which won the 2005 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.