Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll | Friday / 2-22-13 / check local listings
Southern-born, Chicago-raised and New York-made, “She could play the guitar like nobody else …. nobody.” During the 1940s, 50’s and 60’s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe introduced the spiritual passion of her gospel music into the secular world of popular Rock ‘n Roll, inspiring the male icons of the genre. This flamboyant African-American gospel superstar, with her spectacular virtuosity on the newly electrified guitar, was a natural-born performer and a rebel – one of the most important singer-musicians of the 20th century. She is acknowledged as a major influence not only on generations of black musicians – including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Isaac Hayes and Etta James – but also on white stars such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind “Little Women” | Monday / 2-25-13 / check local listings
The author of Little Woman is an almost universally recognized name. Her reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of late 19th century Concord, is firmly established. However, raised among reformers, skeptics and Transcendentalists, the intellectual protégé of Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women – a worldly careerist of sorts. Most surprising is that she led a literary double life, under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned a scandalous, pulp novel with vivid characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts – a far cry from her familiar fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and appropriately impish children!
Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel | Tuesday / 2-26-13 / check local listings
No ordinary writer, and no ordinary woman – Gone With the Wind created two of the world’s greatest lovers, Scarlett and Rhett, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and has sold more than 30 million copies. Born into Atlanta’s upper crust in 1900, Mitchell challenged stifling social restrictions at every turn. A charismatic force to be reckoned with, she had a great sense of humor, was one of Georgia’s first newspaper women and was extremely generous with the money she made from Gone With the Wind. She struggled with the changing role of women and the liberation of African Americans but also suffered from lifelong bouts of depression, until a tragic accident lead to her death in 1949. This film examines the amazing endurance of Gone With the Wind and reveals the seminal events of Mitchell’s life through dramatic re-enactments based on her letters, as scenes from the movie weave together her life and her work.
Harper Lee: Hey, Boo | Wednesday / 2-27-13 / check local listings
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird has been a national pastime for five decades – still selling nearly a million copies a year, its classic popularity and power are a common reference. And the courtroom image of Gregory Peck, as the passionate Atticus Finch, gave us an enduring picture for the novel’s message. Behind it all was a young Southern girl named Nelle Harper Lee, who once said she wanted to be Alabama’s Jane Austen. Hey, Boo explores her life and unravels its mysteries, particularly why she never published again. Illuminated with family photos, revealing personal letters and an exclusive interview with her sister, Alice Finch Lee (100 years old,) the film is steeped in the texture of the novel’s Deep South and the social changes it inspired. Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, Anna Quindlen, Scott Turow, Oprah Winfrey and Andrew Young reflect on how Mockingbird shaped their lives.
Woody Guthrie: Ain’t Got No Home | Friday / 3-15-13 / check local listings
Essentially every American who has listened to the radio – or gone to summer camp – knows Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The nation’s signature folk singer/song-writer, Woody’s music has been recorded by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the Irish rock band U2. Originally blowing out of the Dust Bowl in 1930s Depression Era America, he blended vernacular, rural music and populism to give voice to millions of downtrodden citizens. Woody’s prolific music, poetry and prose were politically leftist, but uniquely patriotic, and always inspirational. He joined music with traditional oral history and was central to generations of folk music revival. His is a complex story filled with frenetic creative energy and a treasure trove of cultural history – as well as personal imperfections and profound family tragedy.
Philip Roth: Unmasked | Friday / 3-29-13 / check local listings
Explore the life of the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novelist, often referred to as the greatest living American writer. In candid interviews, Philip Roth discusses intimate aspects of his life and art as he has never done before: his unliterary upbringing in Newark, N.J., his writing process, the inspiration behind his most famous novels, and the many controversies he stirred throughout his career. With 31 books to his credit, including Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy’s Complaint; Sabbath’s Theater; American Pastoral; and The Human Stain, Roth practically invented the genre of factual-fictional autobiography and commands ownership of the Jewish-American novel. Interviews include Mia Farrow, Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss.
Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character | Tuesday / 4-09-13 / check local listings
America, in the 1960s and ‘70s, was in turmoil – the civil rights struggle, the war in Vietnam and the sexual revolution defined a nation in conflict. But, at 10:00 every Saturday night, in dorms and dens, in living rooms and bedrooms across the country, Americans watched The Carol Burnett Show. For 11 years, this whacky performer yelled like Tarzan and won our hearts, often breaking our hearts, with her edgy – always sympathetic characters. She could fall down a flight of stairs or take a pie in the face like nobody else. She could also wear a slinky sequined gown and hold her own in a duet with Bing Crosby or Julie Andrews. She was open, honest, a real person – our friend. Yet, as with so many brilliant comedians, hers was a difficult childhood and a glimpse of something deeper, darker began to emerge in the dramatic career that followed her TV variety show.
Mel Brooks: Make A Noise | Monday / 5-20-13 / check local listings
In 60-years in show business, he has earned more major awards than any other living entertainer. A comedy giant of our time, scrawny Melvin Kaminsky developed his aggressively funny personality on the mean streets of Brooklyn, to protect against bullies. His first public success came in the early ‘60s with the 2000 Year Old Man albums, recorded with Carl Reiner and unleashing Brooks’ wacky mind on the world – his brazen satirical film The Producers won the 1968 Oscar for best screenplay and such cult classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Twelve Chairs, High Anxiety, To Be or Not to Be, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights followed. Ironically, this larger-than-life, loud-mouthed little man is very private and has been fairly reclusive since his wife of 44 years, Anne Bancroft, died in 2005. He has never authorized a biography and has requested that his friends not talk about him, making his full participation with AMERICAN MASTERS a genuine first.
Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes | Friday / 6-14-13 / check local listings
Lake Wobegon – where the women are strong, the men are good looking and all the children are above average – has become America’s collective hometown, visited weekly for the past 40 years on a fictional radio program that creates authentic nostalgia. With his Prairie Home Companion, Keillor became our national philosopher, filling the empty shoes of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, through his running commentary about the human condition and the social politic. With biting wit, a quirky perspective and an uncanny ability to hone in on the pulse of America, Keillor’s themes and characters are somehow familiar to us all, resonating a shared experience. For more than a year, our camera has followed this great raconteur – and his motley crew of actors, musicians and technical staff – as he crisscrosses the country, broadcasting, recording and revealing himself.
Elia Kazan: A Letter to Elia | Friday / 7-12-13 / check local listings
His name was brought front and center to the world again during the buzz and build-up to the March 1999 Academy Awards. He was to be recognized for Lifetime Achieve-ment, an honor that divided Hollywood and fueled social commentary cross the country. Then 89 years old and best remembered for his film directing in the 1950s – On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman’s Agreement, A Face in the Crowd – Kazan remained a controversial figure. To many, he was personally and permanently emblematic of the sin of ‘naming names’ before HUAC in the darkest days of the Hollywood Blacklist. To others, his extraordinary body of work deserved honors, despite any questionable behavior. One of his strongest supporters was Martin Scorsese, the director of this documentary, a kind of meditation on the nature of art and influence.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket | Friday / 8-23-13 / check local listings
It is 25-years since Baldwin’s death; 50-years since the historic March on Washington and public-cation of his best-selling novel The Fire Next Time. The life, works and beliefs of the late writer and civil-rights activist are recounted – what it is to be born black, impoverished, gifted and gay in a world that has yet to understand “all men are brothers.” He tells his own story in this emotional portrait. Using rarely-seen archival footage from nine different countries, the film melds intimate interviews and eloquent public speeches with cinéma-verité glimpses of Baldwin – and original scenes from his extraordinary funeral service in November 1987. His close friends and colleagues, even critics, illuminate the narrative – among them writers Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, William Styron; entertainer Bobby Short.
Billie Jean King | Tuesday / 9-10-13 / check local listings
The first sports figure ever featured by AMERICAN MASTERS, this was a very deliberate choice about a very deliberate woman who has, indeed, been a major force in changing, and democratizing, our cultural landscape. To commemorate the 40th anniversaries of both the infamous Billie Jean King / Bobby Riggs match – the Battle of the Sexes – and the launch of the Women’s Tennis Association, we look back to the 12-year old southern California girl who played tennis on public courts, observed disparity and unfairness and, as she soared athletically, never stopped trying to remedy the situation. Her competitiveness on the circuit was matched by her egalitarian efforts on behalf of women and her commitment to prove consistently that in diversity there is strength – ultimately being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. King presents her own story with perspective added by Rosie Casals, Chris Everett and Venus Williams, Gloria Steinem and Valerie Jarrett, Elton John and John McEnroe.
Jimi Hendrix | Tuesday / 11-5-13 / check local listings
In what would have been his 70th year, the Hendrix estate has cooperated fully with this film, releasing closely held performance footage that has, literally, never been seen before as well as an extensive archive of photographs, drawings and family letters. Considered a pioneering electric guitarist, one of the most influential in the history of popular music, Hendrix only had four years of mainstream exposure and recognition, but his music and riveting stage presence left an enormous, enduring legacy. Tracing his roots from Seattle to international stardom, this is his definitive story, illustrated by interviews with Hendrix at venues such as the Miami Pop Festival and illuminated with commentary by Paul McCartney, Noel Redding, Billy Cox, Eddie Kramer and others.
Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love | Friday/ 12-27-13 / check local listings
By age 31, he’d won four Grammy’s, an Emmy, three Oscars and a Tony. Hit after hit – “The Way We Were,” “Nobody Does It Better,” “Break It to Me Gently” – scores for The Sting, A Chorus Line, Sophie’s Choice – he was irrepressible, the go-to composer for film and Broadway producers, the go-to performer for every president since Reagan. A child prodigy, accepted at Juilliard at age six, he struggled against his classical expectations to create his own music. His streak was unprecedented and, when it ended, he fell into deep despair. He conducted symphony orchestras and taught seminars but his incredible highs were never again reached. With a rich archival legacy, his A-list collaborators from Barbra to Liza to Aretha and complete cooperation from his family, there is a wealth of material for telling this rich, bitter-sweet story. Hamlisch died in August 2012.
JD Salinger | Tuesday/ 1-21-14 / check local listings
Premieres nationwide Tuesday, January 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Famously the author of The Catcher in the Rye, perhaps the most controversial book of the 1950s, and famously reclusive, Salinger died at age 91 in 2010. He hadn’t published since 1965 and hadn’t spoken publicly since 1980; yet his first book – and its cynical Holden Caufield – remains the bible of adolescent alienation, still banned in places and still selling 250,000 copies a year. Salinger’s first short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” – introducing his fictional Glass family – was published in The New Yorker in 1948, where all of his work subsequently appeared. Probably autobiographically connected to both Holden and the brilliant but troubled Seymour Glass, the more recognition Salinger received, the more he wrestled with unwanted publicity, receding into preferred anonymity in rural New Hampshire, refusing any interviews and trying to block all coverage. But, the embargo finally broken, his story can be fully told.
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth | Friday / 2-7-14 / check local listings
Premieres nationwide Friday, February 7 at 9 p.m. on PBS in honor of African American Heritage Month and Walker’s 70th birthday. Most famous for her seminal novel The Color Purple, writer/activist Alice Walker celebrates her 70th birthday in 2014. Born February 9, 1944, into a family of sharecroppers in rural Georgia, her life unfolded during the violent racism and seismic social changes of mid-20th century America. Her mother, poverty and participation in the Civil Rights Movement were the formative influences on her consciousness, becoming the inherent themes in her writing. The first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, Walker continues to shine a light on global human rights issues. Her dramatic life is told with poetry and lyricism, and includes interviews with Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones, Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire, and Walker herself.
A Fierce Green Fire | Earth Day, Tuesday / 4-22-14 / check local listings
A Fierce Green Fire is the first big-picture exploration of the environmental movement – grassroots and global activism spanning fifty years from conservation to climate change. It premieres nationally on Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22 at 9 pm. Inspired by the book of the same name by Philip Shabecoff and informed by advisors like Edward O. Wilson, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles the largest movement of the 20th century and one of the keys to the 21st. It brings together all the major parts of environmentalism and connects them. It focuses on activism, people fighting to save their homes, their lives, the future – and succeeding against all odds. The film is directed and written by Mark Kitchell, Academy Award-nominated director of Berkeley in the Sixties, and narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself | Friday / 5-16-14 / check local listings
American Masters showcases the remarkable life of famed participatory journalist George Plimpton: writer, editor, amateur sportsman, actor and friend to many. The documentary is both a chronicle of one of the last century’s most intriguing characters, as well as a cinematic adaption of his nuanced and funny literary style. Using Plimpton’s own narration, interviews with friends, family and contemporaries, and previously unseen archival material, the film creates a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind person who lived fully, strangely and incredibly. Plimpton co-founded and worked as the editor of The Paris Review for 50 years; hung out with U.S. Presidents; played quarterback for the Detroit Lions; got Willie Mays to pop out in Yankee Stadium; photographed Playboy models; played goalie for the Boston Bruins; performed with the New York Philharmonic; acted alongside John Wayne, Warren Beatty and Matt Damon; and authored more than 15 books, including Paper Lion. Sharing these experiences and more, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is about football, literature, magazines, fireworks, hockey, movies, presidents, lawn chairs, geniuses, and the true tall tale that brought them all together. Directed, written and produced by Tom Bean and Luke Poling.
Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun | Friday / 6-20-14 / check local listings
With a body unlike any before hers, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929–2000), known as “Tanny,” mesmerized viewers and choreographers alike. As principal New York City Ballet dancer, she was muse to both husband George Balanchine and soul mate Jerome Robbins. Then, at age 27 and the height of her fame, Le Clercq was paralyzed by polio; she never danced again. Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) brings Tanny’s poignant story to the screen for the first time in American Masters — Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun. To illustrate Tanny’s personality, her exquisite dancing and long, racehorse physique, which became the new prototype for Balanchine’s ballet dancers, the film uses photos, home movies, kinescopes and a rare recording of Le Clercq’s voice. The film also features new interviews with those who knew her, including fellow New York City Ballet dancers Jacques d’Amboise and Arthur Mitchell, as well as intimate friends Randy Bourscheidt (former president of the Alliance for the Arts), Barbara Horgan (Balanchine’s long-time assistant) and Pat McBride Lousada (former dancer). These first-hand stories reveal how one woman influenced an entire art form and sparked the creative imagination and adoration of two of its most prolific, renowned creators. 90 minutes.
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning | 8-29-14 / check local listings
View five decades of 20th century America through the prism of Lange’s life and lens. Known for her powerful images from the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange’s haunting “Migrant Mother” remains emblematic of that period. As young America matured into a world power, Lange continued to bear witness, bringing subjects alive, transmitting raw emotions and capturing the human condition. This film is made by Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter, who began her artistic vision, literally, at Lange’s feet. 90 minutes.
American Masters: The Boomer List | 9-23-14 / check local listings
From the time of their birth, the boomer generation has significantly and uniquely changed our world. In 2014, the last boomer turns 50. American Masters: The Boomer List is a comprehensive look at 19 iconic boomers—one born each year of the baby boom from 1946-1964, including music legend Billy Joel and novelist Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club. Viewers will gain insight into the boomer generation through intimate interviews and portraits by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Latino List and The Out List) that focus on exceptional achievement, struggle and identity, telling the story of extraordinary Americans and the history they lived through and often created. Film subjects will illuminate the important movements and changes that shaped the world during the baby boom years. Topics will include the environment; arts and entertainment; science; civil, LGBT and women’s rights; law; politics; public service; sports; the military and technology. 90 minutes.
American Masters – Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work | 9-23-14 / check local listings
American Masters – Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work takes the audience on a year-long ride with Joan Rivers in her 76th year of life; it peels away the mask of an iconic comedian, laying bare both the struggle and thrill of living life as a groundbreaking female performer. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt) expose the private dramas of this irreverent, legendary comedian as she fights to keep her career thriving in a business driven by youth and beauty. 90 minutes.
American Masters – Bing Crosby: Rediscovered | 12-2-14 and encore 12-26-14 / check local listings
Bing Crosby was, without doubt, the most popular and influential multi-media star of the first half of the twentieth century. His remarkable appeal, which continues to this day, was in his seemingly effortless ability to pull an audience in to his intimate, laid-back voice. For over three decades, through radio, film and records he reigned supreme. A brilliant entrepreneur, Crosby played an important role in the development of the postwar recording industry. As one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, he won the Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way and starred in the iconic “Road” films with Bob Hope. Crosby recorded nearly four hundred hit singles, an achievement no one – not Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles – has come close to matching. Thirty-seven years after his death, he remains the most recorded performer in history. American Masters — Bing Crosby: Rediscovered will explore the legend of an iconic performer, revealing a personality far more complex than the public persona he so carefully cultivated. Directed by Emmy-winner Robert Trachtenberg (American Masters — Mel Brooks: Make a Noise). 90 minutes.