..Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the great creative geniuses of the twentieth century, though his long career was an uneven one. Early successes were followed by a period when he could not land a commission and his wife had to wear hand-me-down coats in the cold Wisconsin winter. As seems to be true of others like him, great genius was accompanied by great ego, with a resulting sense of being above the constraints of ordinary people. Controversy was inevitable. Wright’s series of wives, mistresses, and children, both legitimate and not, provoked scandal and ill will in a more innocent period of American history than our own. The tale is spiced with financial delinquency, elopement, fires, madness, and murder.
Surely this is fodder for a stimulating documentary treatment, but, alas, Ken Burns (Lewis and Clark, The Civil War) and Lynn Novick have directed a rather unimaginative, though workmanlike, film in the mold of PBS’s less than memorable, standardized format. Their efforts have not been enhanced by the voice over performance of Edward Herrmann, an actor with a long list of credits, who here has a flatness of tone with a range of expression, as the mot goes, from A to B.
Telling Wright’s story in straightforward chronological order, Burns uses photos, archival film and video clips, talking heads, and newly shot film, all accompanied by carefully selected music and sound effects. Among the speakers, some genuine liveliness and insight is injected into the proceedings by Brendan Gill, Paul Goldberger, and William Cronan. In a video clip of a Wright interview, Mike Wallace is more notable for blowing cigarette smoke into Wright’s eyes than for any skill in engaging Wright in meaningful conversation.
The film rises above its plodding narrative in Burns’ wonderful cinematography, his camera roaming over Wright buildings and interiors, providing the viewer with a sense of the original, arresting, and luminous spaces that the architect designed, as well seen here as can be imagined, aside from actually being there. Burns’ camera is especially good at picking up wonderful details of design, reflecting the fanatical control that Wright exercised over his creations. The last third of the film shows Wright, at an age when most have retired, generating an amazing body of work – from exquisite Falling Water to the Johnson Wax Building, Taliesin West, the Marin County Civic Center, and the Guggenheim Museum. Burns’ shots of these masterworks justifies the entire film. For those whose interest in Wright is already established, this is a film worth seeing for that footage alone. Others, I fear, may reach for the remote control sooner.