If you are like many young Americans, you know three things about Martin Luther King Jr. First, he gave a speech about his big dream, a dream shared by millions of marginalized U.S. citizens. Second, he was martyred for that dream. Third, his birthday is celebrated with an extra day off of school. If you don't know much else about this man and his pivotal role in the cessation of racial segregation, the 2009 documentary Soundtrack For A Revolution is intended to help you fill in the gaps.
Documentarians Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (Nanking) examine the African-American civil-rights campaign of the '60s from the angle of the movement's musical inspirations: the gospel tunes and marching anthems that helped sustain the crusade's momentum and resolve. Playing over still-shocking footage of brutal beatdowns during lunch counter sit-ins and peaceful protests are updated covers of these tunes, sung by the likes of Angie Stone, Wyclef Jean and TV On The Radio. While the appeal of these artists might draw a younger audience to the film--Guttentag's stated intent--the heartfelt selections covered by artists who lived through those turbulent times, such as Richie Havens and the Blind Boys of Alabama, find a deeper resonance.
While Soundtrack For A Revolution is an impassioned, well-intentioned film, it misses the mark as an incisive look into the musicology of the movement. Interviews with participating reverends, politicians and involved citizens--including Coretta Scott King and Congressman John Lewis--frequently consist of sung snatches of remembered melodies followed by a glossy in-studio rendition, but Guttentag and Sturman skip over any examination of the music's origins. The dual layer of lyrical meaning--given the history of American slavery that birthed this oppression--is a discovery made at the viewer's own discretion. Like the 2008 anti-slavery "rockumentary" Call + Response, any important educational gleanings are gathered in spite of the film's focus on music, not from it. But an education is still imparted. It's impossible not to sympathize as Lynda Lowery, 15 years old when she marched on Montgomery, describes her scars from a series of blows to her head, or when we see activist Medgar Evers' stoic resolve shortly before his assassination in 1963. With a scant running time of 82 minutes, it's impossible to catch all the names and dates that fly by, but the disturbing picture of this dark time comes out clearly.
For the most part, Guttentag and Sturman stay on topic throughout the documentary. Only an out-of-the-blue tail-end allusion to Obama's presidency--a single inaugural still, which is onscreen for a few seconds--and a reiterated injunction to keep fighting gives a small feeling of soapboxing. But as a reminder--and in some cases an introduction--to the horrendous history of segregation and the tangential examination of Dr. King's revolutionary role, Soundtrack For A Revolution rings true.