MVFF: Soundtrack for a Revolution (A-)

Soundtrack for a Revolution is one of the best documentaries of the U.S. civil rights movement. Structurally, the film glides smoothly between three styles: newsreel and stills, interviews and musical performances. The manifestations of all three are excellent.

The music is the new twist, and hence the title. The film includes traditional songs performed on camera in a recording studio (ie, not merely as background) by artists such as John Legend, the Roots, Joss Stone — okay, she’s white but never sounds like it — Richie Havens and Wyclef Jean. Most of the performances are very good and the audio quality is top-notch. Not only does the music support the rest of the film, it also serves to punctuate it, thereby avoiding the usually steady (boring) pace we’re all used to in historical documentaries.

The interviews are also excellent. They’re actually short monologues by the people who played lead roles in the movement. We don’t have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, but included are Andrew Young, Julian Bond and John Lewis among many others. (I hadn’t realized the extent to which Lewis was a part of the story.)

Finally, the historical footage and stills are also great. Director Bill Guttentag said they not only found previously unused material, but that they spent a tremendous amount of time in digital cleanup of what they used.

Beyond the good execution of each of these three styles, the reason Soundtrack for a Revolution works so well is because it’s so personal. Of all the films and stories I’ve seen about the civil rights movement, Soundtrack is by far the one that helped me understand why people did what they did to bring about change in America. And I don’t mean people in the group sense, but what it meant to the individuals, both famous and relatively unknown. I came away with a much greater appreciation for what these people sacrificed and what it meant (and still means) to them.

It appears this one is headed for the trifecta: theatrical release, DVD and public television. It’s ideal for the latter: political/cultural history combined with period music. Documentary meets the Oldies shows.

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