"Soundtrack Of A Revolution" debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the series American Experience. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Soundtrack For A Revolution is one of those films that came to life with the idea that young people cannot connect with history without familiar faces to provide some semblance of continuity. Those types of films generally rub me the wrong way because they treat the past like not just a foreign country, but the type of foreign country that must be appropriated and neutered for the poor feckless Americans of the present to understand. That this notion might be a successful way to connect people to their own history is enough to get my irascible old man hackles up. That said, Soundtrack For A Revolution makes up for some truly annoying versions of Civil Rights anthems by cutting through the glossy veneer of history and talking with some of the more interesting people who made it. The documentary aspects are so good that they make the gimmicky parts seem trivial.
For instance, the first words of the movie are those of the Honorable Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of the real heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. “The first time I got arrested,” he says, and pauses for an unreadable moment. “I felt so free. I felt so liberated.” This is the right jolt to kick off a documentary about a time that was shockingly violent and shockingly recent. By focusing on the music of the movement, the filmmakers have given themselves a smaller prism to provide context for the larger issue. That’s a perfectly acceptable strategy to talk about history. To make the smaller concern of the music make sense, they have to provide context from the larger movement. It’s an interesting approach, but it would be better if the modern versions of the songs that keep interrupting the film were stronger and better integrated.
Take the opening credits, scored to Anthony Hamilton and The Blind Boys Of Alabama singing “This May Be The Last Time,” an old spiritual that dates back at least to the 19th century. The Staple Singers revived it in 1955. The original Blind Boys Of Alabama actually provided music for many Civil Rights rallies, but there is no mention of this here. Nor are the Staple Singers mentioned. Instead, we get Anthony Hamilton singing with the self-aggrandizing, overemoting notes popular to modern R&B while the Blind Boys provide background accompaniment. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Hamilton, who is reaping the rewards of the Civil Rights Movement, doesn’t belong in this story. The emotion he’s evoking is painfully false. The guys who do have a connection to the narrative are sitting in the background without comment (although, to be fair, most of these guys are the replacements for the original Blind Boys, but the name still should have some resonance).
When we cut back to the interviews, though, the real story shines through. People like the Reverend Harold Middlebrook, Harry Belafonte, and Andrew Young talk about how the music of the movement kept them going and gave them strength when they were afraid. Among the amazing interviews are some with Candie and Guy Carawan, who taught protesters some of the old folk songs and spirituals that became so central to bringing people together. Having people sing together is a great way to establish a group identity, and as many of the leaders of the movement came out of the church, they surely knew how important it would be to establish a shared identity and purpose.
Some of the footage in the documentary is a real coup. They have video of The Rev. James Lawson’s practice sessions for the sit-ins across the South, from which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed. The preparation that these kids went through in nonviolent resistance was the seed for most of the important activities of the movement, and it’s jarring to see a roomful of kids trying to create the violence of Southern counter-movement jackthuggery. This intense preparation made these people (who include John Lewis) the shock troops of the movement, better prepared for the Anniston bus bombing, the Mississippi Summer initiative, and all of the other violence that was about to erupt. Also amazing is a 1960 state-sponsored film from Mississippi about the state’s innovative approach to dealing with the problems and challenges of having a population that is 45 percent “colored.” (Hint: they mean segregation.)
Although I would rather gnaw off my ears than hear Angie Stone, Joss Stone, Mary Mary, or Wyclef Jean ever sing Civil Rights anthems again (or anything else, for that matter), there were a couple of the modern performances that stood out. While Richie Havens, who was involved in the movement, sings the old folk song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” on a pleasingly open-tuned guitar, the film shows images of the people, some children, who were beaten, shot, drowned, or bombed while working for the movement (or simply being the wrong color in the wrong place) in the early 1960s. The other performance that wasn’t so bad was, unsurprisingly, by the Roots with members of TV On The Radio backing them up. Their version of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” is as poorly integrated to the story as the other performances (other than Havens’), but their version is also thankfully tasteful and understated. My dislike of the contemporary performances has a lot to do with my taste in music, sure, which is why I prefer the unadorned Roots to the phony-baloney showboating of Mary Mary, but I do want to re-emphasize that my major problem is that the performances have very little to do with the rest of the movie.
Some of the narrative does tend to fall into the traditional narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, yes, but he was not by himself the movement. Many Civil Rights narratives, this one included, work so hard at establishing his centrality that they forget that the movement didn’t end in his assassination. This is a minor quibble, though, especially for a film that does right by so many of the non-MLK aspects of the movement. The film gets it right that a movement is the work of many, many people, most of whom aren’t in the history books. It is a shame that they believe that they need the hook of pop stars to sell their story to the masses. And by “the masses,” I seem to be referring to the audience for American Experience on PBS, which may land me a citation from the good people at the Oxford American Dictionary for rampant word abuse.