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Telling, rigidly, the story of Greenwich Village

In ''The Ballad of Greenwich Village," the documentary filmmaker Karen Kramer gives a brief, serviceable history of New York City's bohemian hub. She rounds up interviews with such Village people as Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, Tim Robbins, Roy Haynes, Maya Angelou, Richie Havens, Woody Allen, and Judy Collins. We spend a few minutes with current residents, like James the drag queen and Judah the Israeli artist, and narrator Lili Taylor offers a laconic overview of the neighborhood.

We get a sense of Greenwich Village as a groundbreaking place for racial integration, beat poetry, bebop, gay life, experimental art, and counterculturalism. The movie gives it all to us but good -- and in 70 perfectly basic minutes, too. You'd think a place renowned for its avant-gardism and its radical chic would receive a less by-the-numbers treatment. What has Kramer got to lose?

Herself a longtime Villager, she clearly loves both her neighborhood and her neighbors. Her movie, though, is too many movies jumbled together. James and Judah probably deserve their own films. So does the story of the neighborhood's strange, inevitable gentrification and its clashes with New York University.

The interviews can be enlightening. (Angelou danced and sang calypso? And as young comics, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby used to go for strolls after sets?)

They can also be overly indulgent. Mailer is permitted to read a passage from what looks like ''The Time of Our Time." But any Mailer fan can understand Kramer's dilemma. If the big guy is willing to sit in a coffee shop and tell you how he came to Greenwich Village for the girls, you kind of have to use the footage.

Kramer treats the movie, which opens today at the Coolidge, as a sampler. And that would be fine, except there are glimpses of what ''The Ballad of Greenwich Village" could have been had she maintained her artistic ingenuity. Once or twice, the film goes vérité and gives us roving, unnarrated shots of everyday life. The camera hangs out at Village Chess Shop and Caffe Reggio, then Cornelia Street Cafe and the Village Vanguard. These lovely observational silences confirm what seems self-evident: The Village is a place that, in so many ways, can speak for itself.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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