Friday, May 7, 2010

Soundtrack for a Revolution: A Review

Last night I had the opportunity to see the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution which bills itself as telling "the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music — the freedom songs protesters sang on picket lines, in mass meetings, in paddy wagons, and in jail cells as they fought for justice and equality." The film merges historical footage of the major moments of the civil rights movement with performances of classic freedom songs by contemporary performers such as John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, Angie Stone, Mary Mary, Blind Boys of Alabama, and The Roots. It also features interviews with prominent civil rights leaders such as Rep. John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, and Andrew Young.

The film is most successful as a powerful and visceral portrayal of the civil rights struggle. The interviews with the survivors and heroes of that struggle are warm, and poignant at times. They put a personal face on history. Like others who have reviewed this film, I was especially moved by the visual litany of civil rights martyrs accompanied by Richie Havens' rendition of the gospel song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?". Also moving was a sequence where the contemporary faces of the heroes/survivors were displayed side by side with their mug shots from their arrests during those times. And the relentless footage of police violence. You become acutely aware of the price that has been paid for the relative equality we enjoy now. Even if you are very familiar with the civil rights movement, there is so much footage that new details might emerge for you. I was struck by the fact that the marchers displayed the UN flag along with the American flag, something you don't really see anymore.

It is not so successful as a documentary about the freedom songs and civil rights era music. As a fan of the late folk singer Phil Ochs, I cannot pretend to share other critics' positive appraisal of Wyclef Jean's performance of "Here's to the State of Mississippi". I found it offensive that Jean chose to completely ignore Phil Ochs' original melody and substitute his own. The filmmakers would have done better to ask other performers such as Kim and Reggie Harris who are familiar with both the freedom songs and Phil Ochs' music.

And there were conspicuous omissions. Where is Joan Baez whose presence at Dr. King's side during major protests was almost iconic? Where are those who continue to keep the civil rights songs alive such as the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock in addition to the aforementioned Harrises?

And while I know you can't include every song, as I watched the footage of Medgar Evers' funeral, my mind jumped immediately to Malvina Reynolds' classic "It Isn't Nice":

They kidnapped boys in Mississippi,
They shot Medgar in the back,
Did you say that wasn't proper?
Did you stand out on the track?
You were quiet just like mice,
Now you say we're not nice,
We'll if that's freedom's price,
We don't mind. . .

We could also think of Phil Ochs' "Too Many Martyrs (The Ballad of Medgar Evers)" or Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game", or even Judy Collins' "Medgar Evers Lullaby".

Finally, even though I contributed to the man's campaign and voted for him, I was disturbed by the conspicuous use of President Obama's image as the sign that "we have arrived" at the end of the film. In my opinion, it would have been better to use a montage of images of integrated classrooms and boardrooms, of interracial couples, of lines of racially diverse faces waiting to cast their votes or even the mixed crowds at an Obama campaign rally rather than focusing so bluntly on the president himself. If we have risen, we have risen as a people, not just one individual in the White House.

All in all, "Soundtrack for a Revolution" is a powerful movie. Its good aspects more than outweigh its drawbacks and it is an excellent introduction to the civil rights movement for today's generation who often take their freedoms for granted and forget the gratitude they owe their parents and grandparents for bringing them to this day.

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