As certain to get auds singing as the man himself, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” is a terrific, multilayered portrait of a singer whose legacy extends beyond music and into every major social action movement since the 1940s. With unprecedented access to family and colleagues — even Bob Dylan appears — helmer Jim Brown follows Seeger’s career from the hit parade to the blacklist, encompassing civil rights and environmental activism. Always enjoyable, this docu proves that a few rare people actually deserve the hagiography treatment. Perfect for PBS, the pic should find fervent fans on regional arthouse screens and DVD.
“He’s a living testament to the First Amendment,” proclaims the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, about the man called the “high priest of folk music.” Combining a calm, innate dignity with an ego-free temperament, Seeger is impossible to dislike, his righteousness always paired with respect and thus utterly disarming. Even now, in his late 80s, he can be seen not just on the concert stage but on the street corner, protesting the Iraq invasion as Joe Citizen and not Mr. Celebrity.
Seeger’s musical sensibilities were formed at an early age: His parents believed in bringing music to the people, but while touring, they discovered the people themselves had a musical tradition worth recording. Seeger made a specialty of labor songs, joining forces with Woody Guthrie until World War II interrupted everything.
Once back home, now with wife Toshi by his side, Seeger continued to support labor and rights causes. Together with the Weavers, he had a surprise hit with “Goodnight, Irene,” but Seeger increasingly became a target of the anti-communist fervor sweeping the nation. Though he drifted away from the Party by the late ’40s, his name became associated with “the Red Menace,” and doors began to shut all around him.
A sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall during the height of the blacklist proved there were still people willing to defy the ban, but Seeger was effectively kept off TV for 17 years. He continued to perform, helping to turn “We Shall Overcome” into the anthem of the civil rights movement, and then making “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” a biting commentary on Vietnam.
“He was the biggest conscience in the world,” says Tommy Smothers, who defied the blacklist and insisted on Seeger’s appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Show.”
One of the remarkable things about the man is his use of music rather than polemics to effect social change. Dylan comments on his magical ability to get everyone in a room to sing along with him, and it’s this quality that enables him to win over adults and children alike. Vintage footage of Johnny Cash calling Seeger the best patriot he knows reinforces Bruce Springsteen’s use of the “citizen-artist” label, revealed not only in Seeger’s public life but privately as well.
Brown beautifully works Seeger’s family life into the story (Toshi Seeger is an executive producer), illustrating how he incorporated rigid principles of simplicity and environmental conservation into daily life. Family members speak of Toshi’s dedication in saintly terms — a beautiful photo montage, accompanied by “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” movingly illustrates what’s obviously a great love match.
No novice to docus (his last pic was “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!”), Brown fills the screen with handsome, full-frame talking heads that make every commentary come alive. Archival footage and photos are seamlessly woven in, but best of all is the music remastering, each song and concert performance gorgeously reproduced in what used to be called “living stereo.”