Thursday, February 18, 2010
Writer/director: Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
Documentary, 82 minutes
Last month the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and now February is Black History Month. So it’s perhaps fitting then that Soundtrack for a Revolution opens this weekend at the Bloor Cinema. Directors Guttentag and Sturman examine the black civil rights movement of the 60s through the eyes of people who lived through it. As the title makes clear, particular attention is paid to the songs and music that permeated the movement and inspired its participants.
On hand to provide updated interpretations of many of these songs are various younger musicians such as Wyclef Jean, John Legend, Joss Stone and The Roots (the house band for Jimmy Fallon) as well as venerable performers like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Richie Havens. They clearly hope to reach a younger audience that might not know about the civil rights movement nor would be interested to see a documentary. The studio performances are interspersed throughout the unfolding of the story, told with excellent archival footage, much of it never seen before. For me, the best performances were the simplest, the simple guitar accompaniment to songs performed by Richie Havens or Wyclef Jean, or the piano of Johnny Legend for his rendition of “Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom.”
But music turns out not to be the most compelling aspect of the film. Rather, it’s the first-hand accounts of major incidents accompanied by footage that is shocking to this day. One gets a sense of how brave those in the movement were, and how many of their supporters were actually white. But one also sees how despicable and hateful some of the other white people were, their attacks on peaceful protesters, spitting at the camera, their violent rage. A brief but powerful montage shows many of the people both black and white who were killed and how they were killed in the fight for freedom.
This film certainly affirms my belief that the greatest American in history is Martin Luther King. He comes across as a tremendous figure who was a true leader, never wavering from his belief in non-violence even as he is threatened or has his house firebombed. He did more good for more people at greater personal expense than anyone else I can think of in the twentieth century. His influence extends beyond Black America, to whites and around the world.
The movie isn’t a downer, however, or didactic. It is quite thrilling, inspiring and moving in its own way. And it is made very skillfully. The final closing shot mirrors an earlier one that brings a real resonance to the powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr.