Review: ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’

The life of one of the century's towering creative figures, U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright, receives appropriately grand and probing treatment in this utterly absorbing study.

The life of one of the century’s towering creative figures, U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright, receives appropriately grand and probing treatment in this utterly absorbing study. Wright’s trailblazing work has been the subject of more than one previous documentary, but Ken Burns and Lynn Novick bring the tumultuous life to bear on the career in constantly illuminating ways. Result is a justifiably long film that warrants some specialized theatrical play in docu-friendly situations before skedded PBS airing in November and guaranteed long life on video.

In the deliberate style familiar from previous epic Burns docus but enlivened by constant lucidity and gathering insight, the film should make clear to any viewer the enormous force of personality Wright possessed and the particular ways his genius was expressed. It is also constantly surprising due to the high irregular flow of Wright’s long career; among many other things, it stands as a spectacular refutation of Fitzgerald’s remark about there being no second acts in American lives. In Wright’s case, there were as many as in a Wagnerian opera.

Indeed, Wright early on is heard to compare an architect with a composer, and to have insisted upon an “organic” approach to his work in the sense that architecture should “be a grace to the landscape rather than a disgrace.” Wright, it is stressed, was “200% alive,” and one instantly grasps his weighty imperviousness in a 1957 “Mike Wallace Show” interview snippet, when the subject was 89 and in the midst of controversy concerning the radical design of his career-crowning masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Selecting telling early incidents that will contribute to important themes later on, writer Geoffrey C. Ward evocatively positions Wright, who was born in Wisconsin in 1867, as a mother-pampered only child who loved nature but displayed egotistical and rebellious streaks early on. After early apprenticeship with Chicago’s first great architect, Louis Sullivan, Wright settled in suburban Oak Park and became a successful and innovative designer of expensive private homes.

Married and the father of six children, Wright by the age of 40 had developed the Prairie Style of architecture to its fullest extent, and most men would have been content with this and settled into comfortable middle age. But in 1909, he precipitated the first of numerous scandals in his life by leaving his family and pursuing an affair with a local married woman, which was to end tragically five years later when a dismissed servant brutally murdered her and six others and set fire to Wright’s Wisconsin estate, Taliesin.

Wright attempted to put this behind him by spending the better part of six years in Tokyo building the landmark Imperial Hotel, during which time he wed again. More scandals followed the breakup of that marriage and his union with the woman who became his third wife; by the late ’20s, when Wright was in his 50s and the modernist Intl. School was gaining sway, the “notorious” Wright was considered a virtual has-been.

Challenged by this rejection, however, the tireless architect began the process of reinventing himself. He created Fallingwater, often considered the most stunning private home ever built in the U.S., and the landmark Johnson Wax Building. By age 70, he was reborn, and at 80 he entered the most productive phase of his life.

Using all manner of original photographs, plans, home movies of Wright and disciples at Taliesin West, TV appearances, new footage and interviews with family members and architecture experts, including the late Wright biographer Brendan Gill, pic examines the man’s stunning virtues as well as his significant flaws. His secret, perhaps, was that he “never gave himself any limits,” in one observer’s opinion; he was a professional nonconformist, a larger-than-life, romantic, heroic, cape-wearing, cane-wielding Great Man of the old school.

At the same time, he could be exceedingly remote, arrogant and selfish, an artist whose projects routinely soared way beyond budget and whose buildings, however striking and revolutionary, often leaked and required major upkeep.

But his life story is indisputably extraordinary, and is well served by the intelligence and curiosity Burns, Novick and Ward bring to it. Even among the great figures in the arts, it is difficult to identify more than a handful of creators who remain vital visionaries throughout their entire careers, and even fewer who are more influential and controversial at the end of their lives than they had been at a younger age.

Immaculately produced, film could have used, if anything, more direct commentary from Wright himself. But his viewpoints, impact and ultimate status are fluently expressed here, and they are brought home in a way that places them not only in their historical context, but into the epic eternal discussion of artistic ideas and ideals.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Production

A Florentine Films production produced in association with WETA-TV. Produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Peter Miller. Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward.

With

Narrator: Edward Herrmann. Voices: Philip Bosco, Julie Harris, Sab Shimono.
Camera (Duart color, B&W), Buddy Squires, Burns; editor, Tricia Reidy; associate producer, Shola Lynch; associate editor, Sarah Hill. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 1998. Running time: 146 min.

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