Word has come this morning of the death of Robert Drew. The director-producer was in the vanguard of documentary filmmakers in the 1960s; indeed, he worked with other pioneering giants of the era including Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert and David Maysles.
Drew is most associated with two films focusing on the politics of those tumultuous times, both of which greatly benefitted from access to the Kennedy brothers.
His best known film is “Primary” (1960), a documentary about the Wisconsin Primary election between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. It is considered to be one of the first direct cinema documentaries. According to critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “Primary” "had as immense and measurable an impact on nonfiction filmmaking as Birth of a Nation had on fiction filmmaking.”
On June 11, 1963, the Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama to oppose integration. His defiance of court order rapidly became a national issue in the U.S. Drew Associates had a cameraman in the Oval office and recorded the meetings over the crisis. The result played on TV in October 1963.
“Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” not only fueled discussions over the Civil Rights Movement, it also triggered a profound questioning over the political power of cinema verite or direct cinema. For “Crisis,” Drew convinced President John F. Kennedy to let his crews shoot candidly in the White House, and Drew Associates filmmakers (including Gregory Shuker and Richard Leacock) took cameras into the Oval Office and into the home of Governor Wallace.
Drew also made music documentaries, with an emphasis on jazz. (They are readily available to purchase or just watch on YouTube.) These include “Jazz: The Intimate Art,” which focused on Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Lloyd; and “On The Road With Duke Ellington,” which critics hailed.
Robert Drew produced this 58-minute TV documentary about Duke Ellington on the road in 1967 – the year he picked up honorary degrees at Yale and Morgan State and the year Billy Strayhorn, his principal collaborator, died. (Drew updated the film slightly in 1974.) It's valuable mainly for the portrait it offers of Ellington as a person, pianist, and composer, in roughly that order, though not so much as a bandleader. Insofar as Ellington's main instrument was his orchestra, this is a limitation, but “On the Road” is still valuable for giving us aspects of the man neglected elsewhere, and some of the music – mainly Duke on piano – is great.
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