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Movie Review

A full, if incomplete, look at life of Pete Seeger

Attending Harvard, riding freight trains with Woody Guthrie, hitting No. 1 with "Goodnight Irene" in 1949, jump-starting the folk music revival (and by extension the entire singer-songwriter movement), blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, introducing Martin Luther King Jr. to "We Shall Overcome," cleaning up the Hudson River, being honored by the Kennedy Center - is there anything Pete Seeger hasn't done?

Well, yes, but you won't learn them from "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," a full and fond documentary tribute to a man Natalie Maines calls "a living testament to the First Amendment" and Bruce Springsteen simply calls "a citizen artist."

Filmmaker Jim Brown is out to make a case for the folksinger-activist - 88 at this writing and still kicking hard - as an American institution, and he succeeds by showing how many strands of the culture Seeger directly touched. The film's assembled talking heads are many and impressive - from Bob Dylan to former New York governor George Pataki to Seeger's siblings, wife, and grown children - but the real drama is in the life.

The son of a musicologist and a concert violinist, he was given a ukulele at age 8 and an early directive to "hear music by the people who know how to make it." He fell hard for the labor movement and the Young Communist League, eventually drifting from the latter but never forsaking the former; by his 20s Seeger was playing banjo in union marches down Fifth Avenue while accompanying a modern-dance rendition of rural hoedowns. In the archival footage he looks like a hayseed Gene Kelly.

Seeger found commercial success with the Almanac Singers and the Weavers in the 1940s before the blacklist knocked him off the airwaves for the better part of two decades. The government had no problem with him teaching folk songs to schoolchildren across the country, though, which prompts his biographer to note ironically that "we have to give the FBI credit for the folk-music revival."

When the boom hit in the late 1950s and early '60s, Seeger was at the zenith of his influence, prompting a generation of earnest young strummers and singers to dig into the American songbook. The key figure, of course, was Dylan, and Brown provides footage of the passing of the torch: Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary backing Dylan on "Blowin' in the Wind" at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

And then? Then the kids rushed past Seeger, leaving him a dazed and slightly sanctimonious figure on the sidelines. The folkies had always sneered at rock 'n' roll - an unexamined class bias that proved their Achilles' heel - and when Dylan went electric he took the energy and the audience with him. Seeger had been the teacher, but school was out.

"Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" doesn't attempt to address its subject's growing estrangement from pop culture. Did he try to take an axe to Bob's sound system at Newport in 1965? Martin Scorsese's recent Dylan documentary never came up with a definitive answer; Brown doesn't even ask the question. The larger issue of whether Seeger's pedagogy blinded him to this new and noisy art form remains unplumbed. In fact, rock was as much a music of the folk as the precise re-creations of 1930s miners' songs Seeger favored, but you couldn't enshrine it. It was too messy and alive.

So there's a hole at the center of "Pete Seeger" that the movie fills with loving remembrances, testimonials, and new interview footage of the singer at his hand-built cabin in upstate New York. He's genial and graceful, a legend still intent on fighting the good fight, and if Brown's movie convinces younger audiences to actively participate in their society instead of watching it from the sidelines, all the better. "I look upon myself as a planter of seeds," Seeger says. What he sowed, we still reap.

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

Directed by: Jim Brown

Starring: Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Natalie Maines

At: Waltham Embassy

Running time: 93 minutes