For almost four decades, filmmaker Ken Burns has been making informative and entertaining documentary films that celebrate the different people, events, icons, and art forms that have made the United States of America a unique society in the world.
Burns’ films were a breakthrough for the genre. While history documentaries were seen by most people as dry and boring, Burns made the stories come to life with all the drama and emotion of a film—even if what was on screen was a grainy photograph. Through his signature use of pans, close-ups, emotional music (especially piano), and other filmmaking techniques, Burns brought character and life out of the past and made those old voices live again.
It’s also clear looking at his back catalog that Burns has a lot of respect for his audience. When he’s at his best, Burns simply lets the stories of the past play out with little bias or favor, giving all sides of an issue or event a fair shake. The audience is challenged to form their own opinions about the story, which makes the film so much more engaging and thought-provoking.
I credit Ken Burns with pouring some serious gasoline on the fire that was my passion for American history. I was a kid when I saw my first Ken Burns documentary series on PBS, and it captivated me from the start. The raw human emotion that came forth made me understand that history wasn’t just old photos and dates to memorize, but a collection of real human stories – good, bad, and in between.
Burns also heavily influenced the way I tell stories in my professional career in entertainment, and I always try to find ways of incorporating history into my projects.
Another aspect of Burns’ films that is well known is their length. Many of his works are highly detailed and consist of multiple episodes, running anywhere from four to nineteen hours. These massive lengths are often ridiculed, but I argue that they are entirely necessary to fully understand some of these complicated subjects. One comes out of these films with a new insight to history because of all the details.
My recent review of his latest film, Country Music, prompted me to think of other projects in his body of work that have impacted me and my outlook on history. With states and localities under various degrees of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be a good time to dust off some of these old stories to pass the time. These films are the types of stories we could all use right now.
So here are my ten favorite Ken Burns films, along with where you can stream them at home.