Friday, January 08, 2010

Docs on the Shortlist: Soundtrack for a Revolution

Eighty-nine feature-length documentaries originally qualified for Oscar consideration. The Academy’s Documentary Branch has since whittled the field down to a shortlist of fifteen, from which the final five nominees and eventually winner will be chosen. Not surprisingly, many of the shortlisted films address political subject matter from a perspective in-synch with Hollywood orthodoxy. This includes Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Soundtrack for a Revolution (trailer here), a combination of oral history and musical tribute to the protest songs of the civil rights movement, which screens Saturday during the Docs on the Shortlist series at the Tribeca Cinemas.

While there are several interview segments with surviving veterans of the civil rights establishment, the bulk of the film consists of performances of the songs themselves, including both archival footage and new renditions performed by top contemporary recording artists. Often though, the artists are reverential to a fault. Their takes on the historic songs are so scrupulously faithful it is frequently hard to tell when the archival version ends and the contemporary performance begins.

It is always touchy criticizing such an achingly earnest film as Soundtrack. It is entirely likely that most viewers will take issue with this review. Indeed, this response may well simply be a product of the jazz aesthetic I have thoroughly absorbed that expects artists to constantly reinvent material to make it their own. This simply does not happen in Soundtrack, except to an extent with The Roots, who brought a distinctive flair to the film’s highlight, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” thanks in large measure to their funkier instrumentation (which includes the sousaphone).

Granted, this is greatly a function of the nature of the songs themselves, which understandably resist adventurous interpretations. (Still, Ramsey Lewis’s decades old cover of “Wade in the Water” remains fresher in my mind than Angie Stone’s performance in the film.) This is truly intimidating material and each and every artist brought their A game. Yet, because most of these songs were written for the same purpose, there is often a marked similarity in tone and tempo that further blurs the program shortly after screening it. Of course, many who share the jazz ethos will still embrace the music of Revolution. After all, longtime supporters of the Jazz Foundation of America, Danny Glover, Jarrett Lilien, and Agnes Varis served as executive and associate producers of the film.

While the performances are truly heartfelt, they are not always served by the filmmakers’ editorial choices. In particularly, the overtly partisan use of the Obama inauguration as the film’s climax dilutes the power of the film's message. Revolution cries out to be called stirring and inspiring, but by playing it safe musically, it never truly takes flight. That really does not matter though, because the film is tailor made for Starbucks merchandising and PBS broadcasts. It screens at Tribeca this Saturday (1/9) as part of Docs on the Shortlist and later this month at BAM for a special free Martin Luther King Day presentation (1/18).

(Photo by Stephen Kazmierski)