Continuing to exhibit an odd split personality, VH1 balances some of the dumbest (if popular) “celebreality” programs on TV with smart documentaries looking at the U.S.’ sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll history. “Lords of the Revolution” falls squarely into the latter category, in part by recycling elements from “The Drug Years” and “Sex: The Revolution.” Fortunately, the single-topic format here is at times more enlightening than the scatter-gun approach in those earlier efforts, resulting in a breezy five-part stroll through those years that birthed the culture wars still being fought on multiple fronts.
Artist Andy Warhol, drug enthusiast Timothy Leary, boxer Muhammad Ali, the Black Panthers and pot-smoking comics Cheech & Chong each earn an hour under the “Lords” umbrella. It’s a slightly arbitrary quintet, to be sure, but one that does touch upon several areas where establishment-flouting personalities and movements helped redefine the 1960s and ’70s.
Mixing interviews with carefully chosen footage where possible, the Richard Belzer-narrated doc goes to the source (former Black Panther Bobby Seale, Tommy Chong, Warhol protege Lou Reed) without seeking out those nattering voices that would lend balance or question their legacies. So while Ronald Reagan gets plenty of screen time, it’s strictly as a foe of the Panthers and a “Just Say No” nemesis of Cheech & Chong.
It’s nevertheless fascinating to see how these figures challenged the norms of their day, including an ad for C&C’s “Up in Smoke” whose one-sheet read “Don’t go straight to see this film” — meaning a major studio was not-so-coyly telling consumers to get loaded and see the movie. Hard to believe that would happen today.
Given the various constituencies that seem determined to relitigate the ’60s, such trips down memory lane remain timely as well as entertaining. If only VH1 could find a happy medium between gauzy tributes to this rebel spirit and crass exercises preying upon the hunger of the formerly famous for 15 more minutes in the spotlight — that would be a revolution worth televising.