Spotlight On: Ken Burns
When it comes to historical documentary series over the past 30 years the undisputed master has been Ken Burns. His blockbuster 9-part The Civil War broke new ground in the way documentaries were produced. After that game changer anytime a new Ken Burns doc was announced it became appointment viewing for history buffs and casual fans alike. He and his production company have since become synonymous with PBS with each work guaranteed to be a critical and commercial hit. Because I am a history geek I thought today would be a good day to shine the spotlight on Ken Burns.
The Civil War (1990): The 9 part series that transformed a humble documentarian into a household name. Over 30 million viewers were captivated by his telling of this dark period in American history. Creating a technique dubbed the “Ken Burns effect” he brought a new perspective to archived material allowing audiences to see these images in a brand new light. Burns also recruited a host of A-list talent like Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, and Jeremy Irons to read the words of the great figures in this period. All of this combined with an acclaimed soundtrack and input from esteemed historians like Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields elevated the Civil War beyond a standard docuseries and into an engrossing television.
Baseball (1994): Baseball is an American pass time so it only made sense that the top documentarian concerning American history to bring his talents to exploring the game. Structured as 9 episodes (or 9 Innings as they were dubbed) Burns explored not only the game itself but those who played it and their struggles and conflicts. Off the field Ken Burns also looked at how factors in the country at-large impacted the game loved by millions in unexpected ways. In 2010, the filmmaker even produced a “10th Inning” to pick up where this Emmy winning series left off.
Jazz (2001): In the early 20th century a new style of music originating from the African American communities would grow and become an integral part of the national music heritage. Recruiting the raspy iconic vocals of the great Keith David to narrate, Ken Burns sought to tell the story of this truly All-American musical genre. With the help of musicians and historians alike he traces the history of Jazz from its blues and Creole roots to its impact on modern artists.
The War (2007): As its name implies, World War II was a grand international conflict impacting people from all walks of life across the globe. Countless documentaries, books, TV specials, journal articles etc. have been produced based around the Second World War on a grand scale. So for this 7 part series Ken Burn and collaborator Lynn Novick, took a smaller approach looking at how the war impacted four towns he dubbed “quintessentially American”. Over the course of two weeks viewers watched the events of a global war and how it hit ordinary communities.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009): Seeking a way to protect our country’s natural splendor from industrialization and greed, President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Park. Not only did Ken Burns approach the history of the National Parks with the same skill as he has other topics, but because the story of the parks is still ongoing Burns was able to shoot on location with the latest technology. The cinematography capturing locations like Yellowstone and Acadia is visually stunning. The National Parks earned the same level of fan acclaim as Burns’ works typically do, but this time he received particular praise from families as the series could be enjoyed by parents and children equally.
The Vietnam War (2017): One of the darkest chapters in our country’s history as the vulnerabilities of a superpower nation were laid bare in a long, costly, and arguably unnecessary war. With the largest budget he has ever had Ken Burns along with Lynn Novick, spent 10 years assembling the definitive history of the Vietnam War. Burns finds those involved in the war on all fronts from soldiers on the battlefield of Ia Drang to the protestors who worked to end the conflict at home. The award winning hero journalist Joseph L. Galloway from my hometown even pops up to talk about his experiences. This is a haunting and heart-wrenching series where the filmmaker takes full advantage of the rare TV Mature rating PBS granted him to tell the story of this controversial conflict.
Country Music (2019): While it may have Celtic roots, country music is something completely American. Tracing the origins of the genre back to the Appalachian settlers who wrote and sang songs about faith, heartbreak, and life in general. Since then it has grown into mainstream form of music practiced by musicians across the globe. Given its humble beginnings and place of prominence now, Ken Burns wanted wanted to go back the roots of country asking exactly “What is country music?” and “Where did it come from?”. Talking with historians and artists alike, Burns tells the story of this uniquely American artform. Country Music proved to be yet another hit for the documentarian, and even people who are not fans of country found themselves caught up over the series.