New York: A Documentary Film
by David Mermelstein
January 11, 1999
A Steeplechase Films, in association with WGBH Boston, Thirteen/WNET and the New-York Historical Society, presentation of "The American Experience" in five parts. Executive producer, Ric Burns; producers Lisa Ades, Burns; director, Burns; writers, Burns, James Sanders; camera, Buddy Squires, Allen Moore; editors, Li-Shin Yu, Edward Barteski, David Hanser, Nina Schulman; sound, Ira Spiegel, Marlene Grzaslewicz; music, Brian Keane. 10 HOURS.
Commentary by Robert A. Caro, Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, Fran Lebowitz, Brendan Gill, Allen Ginsberg, Rudolph Giuliani, Pete Hamill, Kenneth Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Alfred Kazin, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert A. M. Stern, Martin Scorsese, Donald Trump, Mike Wallace and others. Readings by Joan Allen, Philip Bosco, Janeane Garofalo, Spalding Gray, Robert Sean Leonard, Frank McCourt, George Plimpton, Ron Silver, Frances Sternhagen, Eli Wallach and others.
Narrator, David Ogden Stiers.
New York is a city defined by muchness, and so it should come as no surprise that Ric Burns' documentary history of the metropolis embraces the same principle. While taking the history of Gotham only up to 1931 and the Great Depression, there is a surfeit of information here. What might have played as too much of a good thing emerges as very much the opposite, for Burns' mammoth effort proves nothing short of gripping.
Burns' effort captures the city's sweeping history with its own rare energy, a thrilling melange of film, photographs, talking heads and voiceover readings, featuring the words of everyone from Walt Whitman to Frances Perkins to a host of common folk. The style, perfected in past projects by Burns and his brother, fellow documentarian Ken, works marvelously here.
That success, however, is enhanced by an often touching script, written by Burns and James Sanders. In descriptions of the Draft Riots of 1863, the terrible squalor that defaced late 19th century New York and the Triangle Factory fire of 1911, Burns and Sanders achieve something akin to poetry.
That sense is only enhanced by David Ogden Stiers' crisp, affecting narration. And the insightful comments of historians such as Mike Wallace, Kenneth Jackson and Craig Steven Wilder further the impact.
If Burns' docu has a central theme, it is that New York (originally New Amsterdam and renamed in honor of the Duke of York on Aug. 29, 1664) was fated to be the great cosmopolitan center and ethnic melting pot it has been.
Interlocutors by the dozen --- including everyone from Brendan Gill and Alfred Kazin to Tony Kushner and Martin Scorsese, to say nothing of the myriad historians called on --- enforce the point that NYC was ground zero for the American experiment almost from the nation's earliest days. To be sure, it proved the engine that drove the country's industrial machine in the years following the Civil War.
In a wide-ranging omnibus such as this, there is inevitably something of an information glut, and so "New York" is ripe for repeat airings and a long pledge-break afterlife. Ultimately, it's the odd details that most lodge in the brain. Who knew, for instance, that the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Indians? Or that Wall Street was so named because the avenue replaced a long wall? Or that Jews first came to the city in 1654? Or that "skyscraper" is a sailor's term? Burns and company turn up an endless supply of such factoids.
Only the docu's music makes a less than ideal impression. Brian Keane's original score is augmented with a host of popular tunes, but well before the end of episode five, viewers will tire of "The Last Rose of Summer" and "Shenandoah." Occasionally, a surprise slips in, like Robert Sean Leonard singing "The Sidewalks of New York," and one feels the power of music rise to the same level as Burns' words and pictures.
The series' sixth and final episode, bringing the story to the present day, will air in the spring, a victim, apparently, of a scheduling snafu. Obviously some disappointment accompanies the postponement of the final episode, but even attenuated, "New York" surpasses the highest expectations.
Burns has delivered a monumental documentary series that raises the bar for this kind of work and in the process elevates our knowledge and understanding of a metropolis that is still evolving, or, as one observer rightly puts it, "always becoming."