Civil rights music doc makes a big impact
By LIZ BRAUN
February 19, 2010
Soundtrack For A Revolution is a brief history of the American
civil-rights movement, told with the help of the freedom songs that
helped inform the era.
Singing contributed to a sense of solidarity among those who worked
for integration; the lyrics to such songs as Will The Circle Be
Unbroken, We Shall Not Be Moved or We Shall Overcome, for example,
allowed those who had been silenced to have a voice.
On a practical level, the music is a helpful entry point into some of
the most shameful chapters in American history.
The songs in Soundtrack For A Revolution came from church, from
slavery and from the labour movement, and the movie offers
contemporary versions of them from such artists as The Roots, Wyclef
Jean and John Legend. The songs are inserted almost like chapter
breaks in the narrative, offering an emotional accompaniment to the
film's harrowing archival footage from the 1950s and '60s. (The
documentary includes some rarely seen footage and photographs as well
as sequences known from TV news or other films the attack dogs, the
billy clubs, the police turning fire hoses on peaceful marchers.
These are images of human cruelty that even when seen, cannot quite
Soundtrack For A Revolution contains interviews with people who were
on the front lines of the civil-rights movement, including
Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, Dorothy
Cotton, Hank Thomas and Julian Bond, among many others.
Their experiences cover a period in history that begins with Rosa
Parks and the Montgomery bus strike, and ends with the assassination
of Martin Luther king in 1968. The movie includes footage from such
incidents as the bombing of King's house, the lunch-counter sit-ins,
the freedom riders on buses in the South, church bombings, the march
on Washington, the killing of Medgar Evers and 'Bloody Sunday' in
Selma in 1965.
And it includes such sobering bits as an old Mississippi state film,
a wall of freedom-fighter mug shots, a photo montage of those who
died for the cause, and a segment with Lynda Lowery, who is still
reduced to tears 45 years later at the memory of being attacked on
Bloody Sunday by Alabama state troopers.
Soundtrack For A Revolution is by no means the last word on the
history or the music it investigates. The film has a couple of
puzzling items why an interview with Guy Carawan, for example, but
not one with Pete Seeger? and it seems to be aimed at those who
grew up with an attention span formed by TV watching.
Still, the material is organized beautifully to make a big impact in
a small time period, and it is bound to ignite many a viewer's
interest in recent history. That's a big bonus.
Soundtrack For A Revolution was short-listed for an Oscar this year.
Soundtrack for a Revolution: Freedom songwriters
Thursday, February 18th, 2010
Near the start of Soundtrack for a Revolution, a new documentary that
explores the role music played in the civil rights movement, there's
a film- within-a-film, a short promotional video for the state of
Mississippi, the kind the local chamber of commerce or board of
tourism sends out to attract visitors to the state. Called The
Message from Mississippi, it boasts about the wonders of segregation;
that even though 45% of the population is "coloured," segregation
keeps the state in order. It is hard to believe the video was filmed
in 1961, less than 50 years ago.
It's interesting to note that many of the subjects interviewed for
the film - a mix of activists, community organizers, church leaders
and musicians are almost wistful when recalling the struggle. They
are fiercely proud of their accomplishments, and their bravery
becomes even more apparent when you see what they were up against:
corrupt cops, racist politicians, a culture of hatred ingrained in
the community. There was even a law against "reckless eyeballing,"
preventing blacks from making eye contact with their white counterparts.
Soundtrack for a Revolution is not only a record of the music, but
the era. The filmmakers, Academy Award-winners Bill Guttentag and Dan
Sturman, tell the story of Martin Luther King; the bus boycotts in
Montgomery; the sit-ins at lunch counters; the Freedom Riders, who
risked injury or jail by travelling in integrated buses through the
Deep South; the march on Washington; the murder of three activists by
local law enforcement officials, chronicled in the film Mississippi Burning.
But the film is mostly about the music; spirituals such as Wade in
the Water and We Shall Overcome are reintroduced to a younger
generation thanks to renditions by contemporary artists like The
Roots, Wyclef Jean, John Legend and Joss Stone, though the best
performances come courtesy of Birmingham's Carlton Reese Memorial
Unity Choir. These performances are often stirring Richie Havens
sings Will the Circle Be Unbroken in honour of those killed during
the movement though a couple of them come across as drawn-out music
videos. Still, these are minor miscues, and do little to take away
from the fact that even singing these songs was an act of rebellion,
an important part of the civil rights movement. As one man points
out, the police can put you in jail, but they can't stop you from singing.
How Music Helped Power The American Civil Rights Movement
Soundtrack for a Revolution is a powerful documentary about the
American civil rights movement during the 1960s and focuses on the
huge role music played among the marchers and protesters who were
fighting for their freedom. Using stock footage and recent interviews
with the people who were there, mixed with musical numbers by
performers The Roots, Josh Stone, Wyclef Jean, TV On The Radio, John
Legend, Richie Havens, Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, and The Blind
Boys of Alabama, Soundtrack for a Revolution is a unique film that is
equally educational as it is entertaining.
CityNews.ca spoke with Soundtrack for a Revolution co-director and
co-writer Bill Guttentag on how the idea for the documentary came to
fruition and his process of putting the film together.
Why did you decide now was the right time to document this topic?
Part of the reason for doing the film is that I think it's a truly
extraordinary story and it's slipping from memory. It's a story where
tremendous leadership at the top, and commited people at the bottom,
were able to change the face of the United States. I've had the
chance to show the film everywhere, from elementary schools to some
of America's finest colleges, and [have learned that] people don't
know the story.
Was it hard getting people to speak with you?
We had amazing access to people [who wanted to talk about their
experience]. Part of the motivation to put your life on the line to
fight for social justice is that you'll want to tell the story years
later. For example, [U.S. Congressman] John Lewis is featured
prominently in the film and is an extremely busy guy and quite a
powerful representative in Washington. He cleared out his schedule so
he could tell his story of the movement. I think he's a true American
hero. He was on the bridge in Selma, Alabama [during the marches to
Montgomery], was friends with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King,
was part of the Freedom Riders, was part of lunch counter
sit-ins...he was really through it all, and wanted to tell the story,
and we felt fortunate to have him.
Did you always plan to include the musical numbers?
Many people think that a going to see a documentary is like a trip to
the dentist. We were trying to fight that perception and were looking
for an innovatitive way to tell the story. When viewers see the film,
they'll see that we don't just stop for the music, but that the music
advances the story. Music was part of the DNA of the civil rights
movement so it's not like we slapped it in and it doesn't fit.
Everyone we interviewed started singing at some point because [music
is] so important to them. We thought that by presenting these great
performances, it would help advance the story, reflect on the music
in the movement, and help get people to come to the theatres. People
may come to see Josh Stone or Wyclef Jean, but they leave knowing the history.
Do you feel music today is just as important as it was during the
civil rights movement?
You're always going to have music; it's not going anywhere. As a
social thing, I think it was much more prevelent then if you just
look at how it was used. That's not to say there are not tremendous
gatherings now where people have giant concerts to help raise money
for social causes such as Haiti, but back then music was just part of
the day-to-day existence and it helped people sing the words they
couldn't say. It also helped inspire them and accompanied them on the
marches. It worked on so many different levels. The cvil rights
marchers changed the face of the United States and one of the things
that gave them encouragement and the will to fight on was the music.
In the documentary Prom Night in Mississippi, we saw that racism and
segregation is still happening in the United States. Do you think
we'll ever see an end to it?
I don't think anyone in the film, or who made the film, would say the
United States has conquered all its problems. However, the people who
we interviewed in the film would say things have definitely changed.
The people who were marching and fighting to get served at a lunch
counter...all those people would tell you that the United States is a
very different place compared to the beginning of the civil rights
movement. At one point during the production, we were filming at a
church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed
[in the 1960s]. At one point, someone in the choir we were filming
wanted to introduce us to a special guest and it was an
African-American woman who is now the police chief of Birmingham.
This would have been unthinkable in the early '60s.
There are some horrific stock images in Soundtrack for a Revolution.
Was it hard for you to decide what to use and what not to use?
One of the things that's interesting is that even if you've seen
civil rights films, in all modesty, you've never seen it like this.
We were able to restore the footage in ways that would have been
prohibitively expensive or impossible to do a few years ago. We spent
a huge amount of time trying to make the images as sharp and
beautiful as we could. And there's stuff that hasn't been seen before
that has come to light in the last couple of years. In terms of the
footage that was used and not used...you want the imagery to be
really powerful, but on the other hand you don't want it to be so
horrifying beyond the call that people check out. It's very tricky as
a filmmaker because you want to stay true to the story but need to
decide how far is too far.
You end on a shot of President Obama. What is the significance of
him being elected to you?
One of the reasons we included the shot of President Obama in the
film, regardless of whether you think he's the greatest president the
public has ever known or not, is because I believe there is a direct
connection between the heroic civil rights marchers of the '60s and
his presence. In 1963, Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream'
speech, and his dream was that people would be able to vote. The idea
of having an African-American president seemed a long way off. Obama
being elected doesn't mean all of the United States' problems are
solved, but it is an extraordinary event.
What do you hope the audience will get out of the film?
I hope the audience will take away this idea that ordinary people can
do extraordinary things. The civil rights movement had truly amazing
leadership, but it also had ordinary people who were putting their
lives on the line to affect social justice. The system of segregation
in the United States was a truly evil, truly awful system that was
changed through peaceful, non-violent means and I think that's a
great lesson for the future.