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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Help To Sing These Songs of Freedom
by Donald Levit

Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman introduced the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day special showing of their Oscar-shortlisted Soundtrack for a Revolution. In screening it for students across the nation, they had learned that, beyond Dr. King and Rosa Parks, few teens know anything about the figures of the Civil Rights Movement. They hope this documentary’s use of contemporary artists interpreting ‘50s-‘60s freedom songs within a context will make for an accessible corrective to that lamentable fact among the rising Now This Minute Generation.

More, the chronologically presented, nearly all b&w stock footage reminds those old enough to remember of the incidents, violence, and ultimate triumphs of that upheaval and of the courage and sacrifice of its leaders and thousands upon thousands of anonymous foot soldiers. The eighty-four minutes organizes a great amount of history and faces, so it is a quibble to note that Pete Seeger and RFK go unidentified and that Viola Gregg Liuzzo is subtitle-named but her unique supreme sacrifice unexplained.

Together with chronology and the accretion of the Movement whose time had come, music is what start to finish unites black and white, young and old, spirit and flesh and film. Many color interviews dot the work, with the rank and file as well as the famous, but from the first “it was the music that gave us the will, the courage to go on.”

Harry Belafonte puts it at once, “You can cage the singer but not the song,” bookended by MLK’s funeral cortege and Samuel Billy Kyles’s “You can kill the dreamer, but you absolutely cannot kill the dream.” For slaves and oppressed, song was communication, solidarity, inspiration, hope, and for Civil Rights workers and marchers it came to the fore again with realization that what some had considered dead-and-well-buried was, in fact, vital and energizing “in the words of the old Negro spiritual.”

The material, 1955-68, is not different from that of King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis. That excellent 1970 Mankiewicz-Lumet effort did not emphasize music, with only the audience’s rousing response to the brutal slur about blind singer Al Hibbler (also in television’s 1986 Eyes on the Prize). Soundtrack, as the title indicates, is much about the symbiosis between actions and music, while its in-color talkers are neither pretentious nor coached and their comments frequently add little-known details and even humor.

There is singing and rhythmic hand-clapping in the archival inclusions, but the bulk of it occurs in modern, color inset-interpretations of the sounds of then, in church or studio, in chorus or groups or solo, gospel or bluesy or soul, by local or world-renowned voices. Printed lyrics flash briefly, white on half-screen black, and while the packed Brooklyn BAM Rose Cinemas audience joined a bit in communion, an old follow-the-bouncing-ball would not have been a bad idea.

These modern screen interpretations are stirring, but, especially in the January 18 atmosphere, it was the news clips -- early television broadcast reportage -- along with the emotional memories of those who participated, that still have the force to move one to tears, awe and pride.

That such things unimaginably happened here, that such hatred was countered with such courage, must be restated, it seems, for each generation lest we forget where we come from and lose sight of where we still need to go. An end-shot of President Obama is true if facile, but more largely true is Julian Bond’s “ordinary people doing extraordinary things that changed the U.S., still not perfect but much better than then.” 

(Released by Louverture Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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