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Pennebaker Now!

Late to the party as usual, I earlier watched an episode of the acclaimed, now-three-seasons-old IFC comedy series Documentary Now!, with each installment a parody of some familiar (at least to some) doc style or subject. This was the recent episode based on D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company (1970), about the marathon recording session of the entire score of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

(Interesting sidelight: at the Manhattan transcription firm where I worked for 17 years, and where labor got so badly and routinely screwed by management that if you weren’t a Marxist going in you were definitely one coming out, D.A. Pennebaker was one of our clients. Because I was good at movies, I got to produce several transcripts for the Pennebaker archives: One A.M., Moon Over Broadway, Only the Strong Survive, The War Room, Town Bloody Hall—and Original Cast Album: Company. Amazing how much of this hour-long documentary has stayed with me after all these years.

[Sidelight to the sidelight: Pennebaker lived in a building on 86th Street, a few blocks from the office, and one evening going to the 7th Avenue subway I met him on the sidewalk. “You’re D.A. Pennebaker,” I said, in case he'd forgotten. “Yeah,” he affirmed, “and this is my dog.” After paying obeisance to the creature on the leash, I asked “Penny,” as his friends call him, if the unreleased Dylan concert film would ever come out. He mumbled something about he doesn’t know, Dylan owns it, it’s up to him—then the goddamn doorman intervened, and our whole relationship basically ended.]).

Anyway, the Documentary Now! take-off is amazingly accurate to the original in terms of clothing, hairstyle, even specific shots; and co-writers John Mulaney and Seth Meyer, with composer Eli Bolin, do a spectacular job of replicating, with hyperreal tweaks, the motor-mouth babble of the original show’s lyrics, the blast and bullshit of its music. I come away lightly refreshed, with a good belly laugh or two, but mainly confirmed in my suspicion that on any given day I would rather listen to a parody of Sondheim than the thing itself.

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