California Documentaries


Documentaries make up one of my favorite film genres.  Nature documentaries were my first foray into the genre and I originally wanted to create a website exclusively on reviewing and examining nature documentaries. That's for another era. When I'm home resting, it's likely I'm viewing a documentary. 

Because California is the subject of countless documentaries I wanted to discuss a few of my favorites.  Many of these are available on Netflix, but I think they're all worthy of buying your own copy.  Ken Burns National Parks documentary series is one of those series where you can toss on any episode and be drawn into the story. Let's take a closer look at some of these California lensed documentaries. All titles and images link to Amazon.

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The legacy of climbing and exploring Yosemite National Park.  Exquisite cinematography, a rad soundtrack and the dramatic chronicle on climbing Yosemite's extraordinary granite faces told by the icons who left their blood and sweat on the routes. The documentary covers rock climbing origins, conflicts between climbers and rangers and the staggering achievements evolving in the valley throughout the decades.

Injected with a carefree attitude and a terrific score, the pacing of the film maintains both an enthusiastic approach to the subject without being ass-kissy or understating the challenges of modern day mountaineering, park management and respecting the scenic dignity of the iconic landscape.

The West

Ken Burns presents a great West Coast epic discussing the exploration and settling of the left coast. There is so much history gripping the heals of the Western American frontier: our love of nature, innovation and improvement.

Guided by intimate journal excerpts, the viewer receives personal accounts of, for example, the enthusiasms associated with the gold rush and the unforgiving prospect of being a gold miner evolved into a hasty population on the western seaboard, establishing the great western American monolith, San Francisco. 

The series is unflinching for describing how early Americans treated the natives. It isn't so dark to be unpalatable, although a dim underbelly underscores The West with eyes on manifest destiny.

I love the stories about the cowboy, how the first gun laws were fostered in Wyoming, of all places, a resistant blow-back to the drunken lunacy of cattlemen fresh from their drive. Men, whose pockets were freshly filled with payment, liver soaked in booze and reckless abandon.

This series goes through so much detail and through so many historic accounts, it's impossible to cover it all. Though it's highly edifying and worthy of the 12+ hours it will take to get to end. Took me less than a week to get through the series.

Dogtown & Z-Boys

Similar in attitude, soundtrack and visual approach to Valley Uprising above, Dogtown follows the Venice Beach skateboarding icons at the infancy of skateboarding and how the Z-Boys were architects of their own brand of surf-inspired freestyle skating.  With sensational interviews and narration by Sean Penn, the Dogtown & Z-Boys documentary takes a bare knuckled approach to the history, conflicts and triumphs of skateboarding. What the sport has endured over the years, even during its noble roots and the attitudes and visions of the early skateboarding pioneers.  Beautifully filmed, fantastic rock n' roll soundtrack and feverishly paced. A skateboarding documentary for those who hate skateboarding.  

A fun and adventure-inspiring documentary about the Big Sur coastline, featuring the wildlife and cohabitation of marine, avian and terrestrial creatures competing for survival. There are excellent sections on the California mountain lion, sea otter, condor and other winged predators.

Terrific visuals of redwoods, coastal chaparral and the iconic scenery abudting the PCH. A classic nature documentary tied to one of California's most important, identifiable and famed coastlines. Superb on Blu Ray. Short, as all Nat Geo documentaries tend to be (45 min). 

Climbing Redwood Giants

Another excellent and fascinating National Geographic documentary on the history, exploration and significance of the California Redwoods. Stunningly shot, the documentary follows two ecologists, one studying by foot on a transect through the massive region occupied by the redwoods, the other climbing the redwood tree canopies, documenting and exploring the habitats created and what's left of the living giants and virgin old and recent stands. Also a short documentary at 45 minutes. 

National Parks - America's Best Idea

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
— Wallace Stegner

A massively inspiration documentary. Arguably the best documentary series produced by the long form beast, Ken Burns. Although the documentary spans all, at the time, 52 National Parks (as of 2016, there are 59) through the fascinating origins of the idea, the reasons for the national park system and the endless triumphs and losses throughout the well over hundred year history.

This is one of those documentaries I buy for friends and family members every year. I adore the portraits of John Muir, Steven Mather and the dozens of other figures who've dedicated their lives to the conservation, promotion and expansion of one of America's highest environmental ideals. It's a beautiful, highly edifying work that encompasses everything from Abe Lincoln signing and protecting the first stands and slabs in Yosemite and Sequoia, through the chronic private development interests of all the parks, notably the Grand Canyon, and finishes with a gorgeous arching saga in Alaska, the last pure American frontier.

No exaggeration, I rewatch this 720 minutes series at least once a year, though usually twice, to reinvigorate and inspire me to work on efforts I'm proud of. 

Closing Note

Let us know in the comment section about your favorite California documentaries. If you find this resource interesting, check out our pieces on famous California drives: Rites of Passage and our favorite road trip: the Grand Tree Tour

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