Ken Burns' Mark Twain [TV Documentary Series]


aec.sny86091.2 11/6/01 New
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In the tradition of his previous "living histories" The Civil War and Baseball, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns assembled this fascinating two-part miniseries devoted to the life and career of legendary American humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain. The first two-hour episode chronicled Twain's life from his humble childhood in Hannibal, MO, through a variety of fascinating adventures and professions, climaxing with worldwide renown as an author, lecturer, and social commentator, and wealth and fame beyond imagination as the creator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. Part Two detailed Twain's often tragic final decades, festooned with financial failures, disillusionment, and the deaths of those nearest and dearest to him. Keith David narrated, while Kevin Conway was heard as the voice of Mark Twain. The carefully chosen visuals were complemented with contemporary observations by such notables as William Styron, Russell Banks, Dick Gregory, and -- perhaps inevitably -- Hal Holbrook, who rose to stardom portraying Twain in the classic one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! (1967). ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi


Review Text This is the soundtrack to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' PBS television series Mark Twain, performed by folk musicians recreating the sound of American folk, popular, and spiritual music circa the late-19th century. Some of the songs would have been familiar in Twain's time, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger," "Maple Leaf Rag," and "Sweet Betsy From Pike." Others were written after Twain's death, but have a similar feel of Americana from the late 1800s, and a handful were actually written specifically for the soundtrack. Most of the 29 selections are performed either by Alabama multi-instrumentalist Bobby Horton or pianist Jacqueline Schwab, both of whom had collaborated with Burns on several of his previous documentaries, such as his well-known Civil War series, which used similar music. If you've seen that or other Burns documentary projects like Baseball and Lewis and Clark, you know what to expect: homespun, laid-back sounds that are evocative of past times. They're a little nostalgic and corny, and impeccably executed, though in a manner that emphasizes their utility as backing tracks, rather than expressing much individuality or interpretation on the part of the performers. Five of the tracks are brief spoken excerpts of Twain's writings, read by actor Kevin Conway. ~ Richie Unterberger

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