A treasure trove of archival performance footage and a stellar lineup of reminiscing interviewees make “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation” a most enjoyable flashback. Laura Archibald’s documentary about Ground Zero for the 1960s folk explosion — and its enormous influence on the shape of rock music to come — isn’t assembled in a particularly distinctive manner, but the materials and voices culled offer more than enough reward in themselves. Pic began theatrical dates on Jan. 18 as it continues to tour festivals; broadcast and home-format sales are inevitable.
A popular folk-music revival in the 1950s (led by lefty quartet the Weavers) created a new generation of youths who began the next decade dutifully imitating spirituals, work songs, traditional ballads and the like, just as they were recorded on Harry Smith’s famous vinyl anthologies. Mercifully, this moment of college kids piously channeling coal miners passed when the Greenwich Village scene — always a cauldron of emerging boho trends — discovered some of its talents were capable of writing new songs relevant to the roiling social changes at hand.
Chief among them, of course, was Minnesota emigre Bob Dylan, and the pic details his well-known contributions — the timely, anthemic likes of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” setting the standard for a new songwriting that mixed the personal, poetic and political, particularly fueled by the Civil Rights movement. Several prominent observers here admit Dylan initially left them unimpressed, with his rough vocals and guitar playing.
Shared ideology and activism made the scene more collaborative than competitive, even if some Greenwich vets like Fred Neil doubtless experienced mixed feelings in seeing fresh arrivals (Joni Mitchell et al.) sail right past them to wider fame.
Those interviewed — Dylan and Mitchell are the most prominent no-shows — carried that missionary zeal on through the decades via endless benefit concerts and recordings. As a whole, they’ve aged notably better than subsequent generations of musicians who pursued stardom (and its related hedonistic excesses) sans the social idealism. They’re a genial, frank group for whom that nearly 50-year-gone era remains as vivid as yesterday. A parade of vintage TV clips shows the now somewhat surprising extent to which their music reached a mass audience, perhaps the goofiest illustration being a Buffy Saint-Marie/Andy Williams duet on “Fixin’ to Die Blues.”
As a whole, “Greenwich Village” is less resonant than its individual parts; the editorial structure is competent but somewhat pedestrian, and the device chosen as a narrative frame — Susan Sarandon reading excerpts from early Dylan girlfriend Suze Rotolo’s memoir “A Freewheelin’ Time” — has a flat, gee-whiz quality, as if the least interesting person at a party had been asked to describe it for posterity. While there may still be room for a more definitive documentary on the subject, however, Archibald’s effort is solid enough to serve quite nicely for now.