One of the few failings of Soundtrack for a Revolution is its title. While the music that served as a backdrop for the civil rights movement of the 1960s is certainly a key component of this very absorbing 2009 documentary by Bill Guttentag and Danny Sturman, the film is far more an oral history of Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent protests in eradicating segregation and the racial unrest that grew from it.
That alone makes the film essential viewing on King’s birthday. One World Films will present a free screening of Soundtrack for a Revolution on Monday at the Kentucky Theatre.
But music still speaks volumes in the film, perhaps more so than Guttentag and Sturman intended (more on that in a moment). The thrust is upon performances of songs of solidarity and protest long associated with the civil rights movement as performed by artists of the present day. But even here, such music is very much a “soundtrack” for the story of the movement itself, which is told by those were witnesses to it – namely Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis and the ever eloquent Julian Bond.
The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles cuts to the quick, though, when exploring the implausibility of segregation extending to graveyards. “Dead people,” he says soberly, “get along with each other.”
A few of the contemporary performances miss their mark simply because the artists – specifically, Joss Stone, Angie Stone (definitely not related) and Mary Mary – sing over fussy, funkified arrangements that tend to dramatize moments in history that need no artificial embellishment. As such, Angie Stone’s performance of Wade in the Water seems a touch redundant when played almost side by side with newsreel footage of crowds singing the song in the early ‘60s accompanied only by handclaps. The sense of soul in the latter is considerably more profound.
Other performances are almost heartbreaking, especially Richie Havens’ sublimely and spiritually subdued reading of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which is interspersed with photographs of the individuals – black and white, male and female, adult and child, military and civilian – murdered during the era’s protests.
Turning up the turbulence are The Roots who breathe new but unforced urgency into Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around. Later, John Legend, accompanying himself on piano, serves Stayin’ on Freedom as an affirmation as the film concludes with King’s 1968 assasination in Memphis.
But there is a truly frightening musical moment early in the film that quietly underscores the depth of cultural division that existed, especially in the south, prior to the civil rights movement. It’s a film clip designed like a piece of war propaganda titled The Message from Mississippi. It details segregation and racial inequality as absurdly acceptable components of daily life in the early ‘60s. Employed as a backdrop is a bit of orchestral muzak, the kind of music one might have heard on period family TV shows like Leave it to Beaver. It chirps along unassumingly, as if to enforce the fact that social injustice was, in that day, perfectly acceptable, that life in Mississippi was fine just the way it was.
It’s an effectively disgusting reminder that we have indeed traveled far from the days before King’s dream took hold. Luckily the music that Soundtrack for a Revolution can truly call its own, speaks in louder terms of an honest and more lasting truth.
Soundtrack for a Revolution will be shown at 2 p.m. Monday at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main. Admission is free. Call (859) 231-7924. The film is also available on DVD.