Soundtrack for a Revolution
‘Soundtrack’ captures voices of a movement
“A policeman can’t stop you from singing,’’ the civil rights leader Rev. Samuel “Billy’’ Kyles says in “Soundtrack for a Revolution.’’ “He can put you in jail, but he can’t stop you [from singing a song] — unless he puts a rag in your mouth, and then you can hum it.’’ “Soundtrack’’ does a lot of humming — humming with energy. There’s no need for the other kind of humming. Not even a George Wallace or Bull Connor would dare muffle the music that fills it: the spirituals and gospel songs that become stirring political songs during the civil rights movement of the ’60s.
Those songs, which did so much to fuel the movement, are a great subject for a documentary. As US Representative John Lewis says at the beginning of “Soundtrack,’’ “It was the music that gave us the courage, the will, the drive to go on despite it all.’’
Kyles and Lewis are among the numerous talking-head interviews. Some are famous (Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, Julian Bond). Some are not. Almost all speak with great gusto. One shortcoming of “Soundtrack’’ is that it construes “music’’ so narrowly. The speech of someone like Kyles is inherently, marvelously musical. And that’s stupendously true of the clips from various addresses and sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. that are seen throughout “Soundtrack.’’ The sheer musicality of the spoken-word portion of the movement’s soundtrack is difficult to exaggerate.
Another shortcoming also has to do with absence. The focus is on songs the protesters sang: “We Shall Overcome,’’ “Everybody Says Freedom,’’ “I’m on My Way,’’ “Marching Up to Freedom Land,’’ “Which Side Are You On?’’ Another part of the story is the songs they listened to. Any understanding of the civil rights soundtrack is incomplete without the effect that contemporary popular music had on the movement. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come’’ became an anthem in its own right.
Peter Guralnick’s book “Sweet Soul Music’’ gives an excellent account of how the civil rights era both shaped and was shaped by the period’s recording artists. There’s none of that in “Soundtrack.’’ Presumably, writer-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman felt that was outside their brief. Instead they offer current-day performers singing movement songs. Wyclef Jean sings “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,’’ for example, and Angie Stone “Wade in the Water.’’
Maybe the idea was to attract a younger audience (though Richie Havens’s crossover dreams ended shortly after Woodstock) or to freshen these songs and make them seem “relevant.’’ Whatever the rationale, it’s a mistake. When Joss Stone sings “Eyes on the Prize,’’ it’s like she’s auditioning for a C-SPAN version of “American Idol.’’ Where’s Simon Cowell when you need him?
The contemporary music sequences are a distraction from the heart of the movie: truly astounding archival footage of speeches, marches, and demonstrations. There’s also an excerpt from a promotional film commissioned by the State of Mississippi in 1960 that justifies racial segregation with a cheerful, chamber-of-commerce obliviousness that would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. “Soundtrack’’ functions as a kind of shadow history of the movement, going from Montgomery to lunch-counter sit-ins to Birmingham to the March on Washington to Freedom Summer to Selma to Memphis to King’s funeral. The music is the occasion, and it’s stirring. What linger, though, are the images — and the ideals and emotions they convey.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.