The alternation of contemporary performances and historical archival clips, which worked so brilliantly for directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman in their docu “Nanking,” yields mixed results in “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” which traces music’s essential role in the civil rights movement. While actors in “Nanking” recited horrific eyewitness accounts of the 1937-38 massacre, musicians here merely croon freedom anthems in wood-paneled studios. A stirring civics lesson combined with glossy modern musicvideos of the movement’s greatest hits, the pic never quite reconciles its different agendas, but should play to appreciative ears at fests, in ancillary and serve as fodder for PBS pledge drives.
Pic’s power resides in its found footage: A 1960 state propaganda film glorifies segregation, while televised coverage shows peaceful freedom marchers being attacked by dogs, trampled by horses and savagely beaten by police. Newsreels document the courage of hundreds of thousands of marchers in the face of that violence, to the shared strains of “We Shall Overcome.” Images of key players like Julian Bond, John Lewis, Harry Belafonte and Andrew Young, then and now, attest to a political continuum that the awkward last shot of a triumphant President Obama almost overplays.
At times, this valiant attempt to score America’s racial manifest destiny manages to create a convincing musical throughline. If Richie Havens’ song about his mother’s burial initially seems a stretch to accompany images of Medgar Evers’ funeral, the subsequent photos of victims of hate crimes and their harsh manner of death somehow make Havens’ elegy come full circle. Movement veterans Candie and Guy Carawan sing their variation of “Welcome Table” under clips of lunch-counter sit-ins that contrast the protesters’ quiet dignity with the rabid violence of those who attacked them.
One can readily comprehend the desire of the filmmakers and exec producer Danny Glover to forge contempo links to this black-and-white past, targeting younger auds via Wyclef Jean, Angie Stone, Mary Mary, John Legend et al. The superstars’ modern studio renditions of enduring civil rights anthems often serve as lead-ins to lively sound/image plays. The strategy pays off in the cases of Joss Stone’s interpretation of “Eyes on the Prize,” tied to filmed material of mass arrests of freedom riders, or the Roots’ rousing version of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” chanted over the Martin Luther King-led march on Selma.
But a surprising amount of “Soundtrack” is devoted to straight performances. Despite the real emotional commitment of the artists, their polished professionalism sometimes clashes with the wry smiles of civil rights veterans who recall improvising mocking lyrics to these songs to rally spirits under fire.