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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: The Shakers (1989)

"'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come 'round where I want to be."
- Shaker Orphans, singing one of their many songs

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: David McCullough, Ed Nickels, Eldress Gertrude Sowle, Helen Upton, Sister Mildred Barker, Jacob Needleman, Eldress Beathe Lindsay, Olive Hayden Austin
Other Stars: Paul Roebling, Julie Harris, Olya Bellin, Wendy Tilghman, I. Tucker Burn, Steve Pudenc, Jesse Carr
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 00h:59m:51s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 097368859142
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Ever since his mini-series of The Civil War aired on PBS, Ken Burns has been king of the historical documentary. His lesser-known The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God is an hour long documentary that originally aired on PBS back in 1989.

This project has all of the trademark Burns touches, with lyrical musical set to gorgeous photographs of the period being examined. Unlike many of the other films by Burns, The Shakers is not so much about an historical era but about a people and their beliefs. The narration, by Burns' longtime narrator David McCullough, provides the viewer with the history of this religious movement while the interviews and voiceovers give insight into the daily life and thought processes of the people who chose to lead this way of life.

This documentary picks up where school textbooks leave off, giving very generic information about the history of the Shaker movement. As is well known, the Shakers were Christians that lived in villages where abstinence, hard work, and communal cooperation were essential. The group, founded by Anna Lee in 1770, after, according to the religion's tradition, Jesus appeared to her, believed in a simple life dedicated to fairness. Indeed, their views of things were tremendously forward minded—just to name a few: women are equal, race is a non-issue, and concepts like health care were conceived. The underlying theology of this religion focused on the simplicity of God, offering all of their efforts towards Him in attempt to make Earth more like Heaven. To some extent, this goal was accomplished, because as the documentary shows they designed some of the most beautiful and well-made furniture and houses of the past 200 years. In fact, as is pointed out in the documentary, the Shakers actually created a wholly American architectural design.

This information is ably presented by Ken Burns, who co-directed the project with Amy Stechler Burns, with a mixture of period photographs and actual photography of Shaker structures. In fact, the use of location photography makes this venture feel more alive than his other work because we actually can see the leaves blowing in the wind as opposed to just having a sound effect to create that effect. However, as informative as the historical content is, the best parts of the documentary are the interviews with modern-day Shakers. People like Eldress Gertrude Sowle and Sister Mildred Barker put a human face on this movement, making it much more relatable to viewers. There is a sense of sadness watching the modern Shakers, because (from the perspective of an outsider) it seems like they are missing so many opportunities. However, all of the women interviewed (it appears that the Shaker movement appeals more to women than to men) come across as kind, happy people and if that entails their missing out on the luxuries and wonders of modern life, so be it.

The theology of the Shakers certainly has elements in it that are quite admirable, while others seem more questionable in their logic. Nonetheless, Burns and his company have delivered a handsome portrait of this movement. It has all of the technical traits and skill one expects from a Burns movie, but it also has a much more contemporary feel than usual. When compared to other product put out on television, this is a rather interesting and enjoyable hour that offers some good insights and history.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image is slightly grainy, but overall this is a solid restoration. The original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is preserved and colors, particularly the sepiatone photographs, look nice. The interviews have a slightly soft look to them, but that is about as bad as the image gets.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono sound mix is spread across the front sound stage with a clean, crisp air. The narration comes across nicely as does the music, which helps in creating the mood of the piece. It isn't a dynamic mix, but it aids the visuals well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The extras here are the same as on the other members of the Ken Burns' America Collection. There are two featurettes, the first is Ken Burns: Making History (7m:15s) and contains video footage of the man and his talented crew as they mix audio and shoot photographs. The featurette is structured by comments Burns makes about how to make these documentaries and his motivation for continuing down this path. He shares some interesting information, making this a nice bonus feature. The other featurette is A Conversation With Ken Burns (12m:12s) in which he talks more about his bigger projects, like Baseball and The Civil War, and his reason for telling those stories. There's an interesting passage in which he defends his storytelling style, but it doesn't truly add anything much to the other featurette. Finally, there is some information about PBS' website.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God is an eloquent piece from Ken Burns. It offers an hour of intelligent material and is presented in this DVD with a good transfer and clean sound mix. The extras are the same as on the other DVDs in the new Ken Burns' America Collection from PBS, and worth watching.


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