Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Listen to and watch the "Soundtrack for a Revolution"

Is there really a completely fresh way to examine a story as familiar as that of the American civil rights movement?

Probably not, but "Soundtrack for a Revolution," which hits DVD on Sept. 28, comes very close by looking at the spirituals and other songs that gave the movement its rhythm and spark.

Along with a brisk recounting of the titular revolution that changed the American South forever, it offers fresh takes on songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "This Little Light of Mine" by some of the best contemporary soul, R&B and gospel performers, including John Legend, Wyclef Jean, The Roots, Joss Stone and Mary Mary.

The songs all get polished up and beautifully delivered, especially Stone's "Eyes on the Prize," but they're all outshone by an Alabama church choir, the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, who show that these songs are, after all, still strongest in their raw, natural form.

And though this is a story we all learned in elementary school, this documentary directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturnam still manages to bring it some new perspective through its choice of living witnesses to the movement. There are heavyweights such as Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Young, but here it's a story best told by the soldiers - many of them only children or teenagers at the time - who waged this war of ideas on the street.

Seen filtered through their eyes and in often extremely brutal footage, scenes as small as the violent breaking up of a lunch counter sit-in to as monumental as the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama, are brought back to life in a powerful way.

The movie hits hardest when the music and the tale it drives come together, most dramatically when Richie Havens' solo acoustic rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is accompanied by a slide show of photos of some of the many people who lost their lives in the moment, closing with the four little girls who died in the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Ala. It's both extremely hard to watch but also impossible to take your eyes off of.

And in the end, "Soundtrack for a Revolution" works as well for what it says as for what it leaves unsaid. To hear Lewis calmly describe how he was spit on and beaten can't help but make you think of how he was treated again during our recent national debate about health care reform, and no matter where you come down on that issue, it's a solid punch in the gut.

As for DVD extras, there's really only one, but it's a natural extension of the movie: The studio performances of all the great songs featured in it. Along with the performers listed above, there's also soul singer Angie Stone and the Blind Boys of Alabama with Anthony Hamilton, and they're all first-rate (well, actually, I personally can't stand John Legend, who is really just a pale imitation of Stevie Wonder, but that's just my opinion.)

For a history lesson that entertains at least as much it enlightens, "Soundtrack for a Revolution" is well worth checking when it hits DVD on Sept. 28.

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