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PLEASE NOTE: Michael D's is currently in READ ONLY MODE. Anything submitted will simply not be written to the database.
Lots of stuff is still broken, but at least reviews can now be looked up and read.
New York: A Documentary Film (1999)

New York: A Documentary Film (1999)

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Released 8-Feb-2012

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 740:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Multi Disc Set (5)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Programme
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Ric Burns
Louis Armstrong
Mrs. Vincent Astor

Madman Entertainment
Starring None Given
Case Amaray-Transparent-S/C-Dual
RPI ? Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio Varies
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Varies Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     When it comes time to present a painstakingly researched, richly detailed analysis of any aspect of America there are no better go-to guys than the brothers Ken and Ric Burns. These devotees of American culture can find significance and magnificence in just about any theme. Ken Burns is perhaps the more famous of the two, forever associated with that cornerstone of the historical documentary series The Civil War (which Ric Burns co-wrote and produced.)

     New York: A Documentary Film is the work of Ric Burns and it displays all the wealth of detail that typifies their work. The story of its making perhaps mirrors the somewhat chaotic rise of the city itself. Burns began work in 1993 but the scope of the project kept getting bigger in scope and longer in duration. Originally it was planned to be 10 hours in length, but that length was taken up by the first 5 episodes. The final two episodes, as planned, were released in September 2001. The fall of the World Trade Centre brought Burns back to provide a lengthy coda to his work.

     Could there be any more suitable subject for a lengthy documentary series than the great city of New York? For so long the virtual centre of the World, a city with a rich and often troubling history and the one city, as one commentator says, that everyone has an enduring image of in their head, even if they had never been there.

     The episodes are as follows - with the descriptions taken from the official website:

Episode 1: The Country and the City (1609-1825)

     The first two hours of New York: A Documentary Film chronicle New York's beginnings -- from its earliest days as a Dutch trading post to the 17th century construction of the Erie Canal, which made New York City a vital conduit to the mainland of a growing America.

Program Description

     The series begins by identifying the key themes that shaped New York's history: commerce and capitalism, diversity and democracy, transformation and creativity. The episode charts the development of the city founded by the Dutch as a purely commercial enterprise, first as New Amsterdam, a freewheeling enclave of trade and opportunity; then as the British New York, a colony fuelled by slavery which was bestowed as a birthday gift upon the Duke of York by his brother, King Charles; soon after as a strategically pivotal locale in the American Revolution; and ultimately as the city of New York: the nation's first capital and the place destined to define urban life in America -- and American ideals.

Episode 2: Order and Disorder (1825-1865)

     This episode of New York: A Documentary Film details New York's enormous growth as a booming commercial centre and multi-ethnic port, and the mounting tensions that set the stage for the nation's bloodiest riot.

Program Description

     Already established as America's premier port, New York City swelled into the nation's greatest industrial metropolis as a massive wave of German and Irish immigration turned the city into one of the world's most complex urban environments, bringing with it a host of new social problems. Episode Two reveals how the city's artists, innovators and leaders, from poet Walt Whitman to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the designers of Central Park) grappled with the city's growing conflicts -- which culminated in the catastrophic Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

Episode 4: The Power and the People (1898-1914)

     This episode of New York: A Documentary Film follows New York into a new century in the wake of an extraordinary wave of immigration and the birth of the skyscraper.

Program Description

     As New York spilled into the new century, the extraordinary interplay of capitalism, democracy and transformation surged to a climax. During a single generation, over 10 million immigrants arrived in New York. The city itself became an even more dramatic lure with the construction of the first subways and skyscrapers. And arising from the plight of New York's most exploited citizens came landmark legislation that would eventually transform the lives of all Americans.

Episode 5: Cosmopolis (1914-1931)

     During the fifth episode of New York: A Documentary Film , the post-war economic boom, the rise of consumer culture, and the birth of new mass-media industries fuel the convergence of an incredible array of human and cultural energies, ending with the Crash of 1929 and the construction of the Empire State Building.

Program Description

     In this short but dazzling period, New York became the focal point of an extraordinary array of human and cultural energies, reaching its highest levels of urban excitement and glamour. In just over a decade, New York gave birth to its signature skyscrapers, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and to artistic creations like F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and to the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Along the way, Harlem emerged as the undisputed capital of the African- American experience and the new media industries of advertising, radio networks, public relations, and magazines found their homes in midtown Manhattan.

Episode 6: The City of Tomorrow (1931-1940)

     During the sixth episode of New York: A Documentary Film , the dramatic events that followed the Crash of '29 fuel the greatest economic depression in American history and plunge the city and the nation into economic gloom.

Program Description

     In little more than ten years, immense new forces were unleashed in New York, from the Depression itself to the New Deal, which permanently altered the city and the country. Along the way, two of the most remarkable New Yorkers of all time came to the fore: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and master builder Robert Moses, both of whom attempted to create, in the darkest of times, a bold new city of the future. The episode examines their careers in detail, as well as the immense public works that transformed the city in the '30s. Also explored are the demise of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the coming of the New Deal, the fate of Harlem during the Depression, and the increasingly complex impact of the automobile on the city.

Episode 7: The City and the World (1945-Present)

     During the seventh episode of New York: A Documentary Film , the turbulent and often harrowing years from 1945 to the present are explored. Emerging from the Depression and the Second World War as the most powerful metropolis on Earth, New York soon confronted urban woes of unprecedented proportions, and fought for its very existence.

Program Description

     In exploring the social, economic and physical forces that swept through the city in the post-war period, Episode Seven examines the great African-American migration and Puerto Rican immigration of the '40s, '50s, and '60s; the beginnings of white flight and suburbanization; and the massive physical changes wrought by highways and urban renewal -- all of which were directed, to a surprising degree, by one man: Robert Moses. The film comes to a climax with the destruction of Penn Station, the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the social and fiscal crises of the '60s and '70s, and New York's miraculous revival in the last quarter-century.

Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946–2003)

     Not originally part of the series this nevertheless slots in well, featuring the same social commentators as the series itself. It tells the story of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, and was produced following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The film is not all tragedy, the story of the construction occupies most of its length. As with the earlier episodes it blends commentary from those who saw the towers as everything good about New York and those who saw them as a vainglorious attempt to dominate the already overbusy skyline.

     The greatest asset of the series is also perhaps its greatest flaw. The series dates from the late 90's and follows the tried and true Burns format - intelligent people giving detailed analysis of historical events and archive images and footage to re-enforce the point. The series is over 12 hours long and at times it feels just too dry. No-one really makes history documentaries like this anymore. Take a look at the series America: The Story of Us to see how they do it now; dramatic reconstructions, CGI and animations and a bunch of celebrities and all-sorts giving the veneer of importance to the story. It is a disappointing but inevitable trend.

     Therefore, for documentary fans who are patient and interested in the deeper story this is an indispensable series. For those who want a thrilling account of the life of this great city this series may be just too slow.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


     The series is generally presented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio representing its television origins. The exception is for the last episode which was shot to be displayed in 1.85:1.

     This series has been brought to DVD in pretty much an untouched format. It has not been upgraded or restored in any way. As a result it looks pretty average. The historical footage is full of artefacts. That in itself is not such a problem. History fans are used to grainy old footage. However the talking head segments also look old and faded. Again, it is easy to understand why this hasn't been given a frame by frame restoration but potential purchasers should be warned not to expect a slick presentation.

    There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     The sound for New York: A Documentary Film is English Dolby Digital 2.0 running at 224 Kb/s.

     This is perfectly adequate for a series that relies on voice-over, interview material and some historical sound recordings. The voices are clear and easy to understand. The voice over is by David Ogden Stiers, best known to many for his work on M.A.S.H. He gives a sense of both reverence and importance to the proceedings.

    Music is drawn from a myriad of sources.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     This is an All Region DVD series. As a reader has pointed out the current version appears to be shorter than the original NTSC DVD released in Region 1 in 2003. Up to you. I would still buy the local one....


     A city like New York demands a pretty special analysis. On all points Ric Burns’ extremely detailed documentary series, four years in the making, is a major success. The only problem is in its detail. Casual fans need not apply. This is over twelve hours of history which makes no concessions to flashy effects and reconstructions. As a result it won't be for everyone. Those with the patience will find it a deep and rewarding experience.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Review Equipment
DVDCambridge 650BD (All Regions), using HDMI output
DisplaySony VPL-VW80 Projector on 110" Screen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationPioneer SC-LX 81 7.1
SpeakersAaron ATS-5 7.1

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