Movie Review: ‘Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation’

January 18th, 2013

Sherry Rayn Barnett

Judy Collins in Laura Archibald’s documentary.

It is striking how many of the 1960s folk music pioneers in Laura Archibald’s entertaining documentary, “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation,” are still earnestly plugging away 50 years later. If rock stars often burn out, folkies tend to slowly fade away.

The movie’s keepers of the flame include Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Eric Andersen, John Sebastian, Peter Yarrow, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Their stands against social injustice may have lost some of their intensity, but they adhere to the same values, principles and ideals that drove them to write and record what were clumsily labeled “protest” songs.

Then, as now, like-minded musicians clustered in circles. But because they shared a sense of mission that transcended personal celebrity, the ties bonding the early ’60s folkies were unusually strong. There was intense competition, to be sure, but it was offset by a sense of solidarity and purpose, along with a determination not to “sell out” to the pop mainstream.

Political involvement has clearly helped these performers keep their feet on the ground and their egos from exploding. The film’s moral pillar, Pete Seeger, now 93, is as articulate as ever in describing the power of communal singing to unite people of varying political stripes and to foster an overriding sense of humane common purpose. He proclaims himself more optimistic about the future than he has ever been.

This multifaceted survey jumps haphazardly from theme to theme. There is a lot of Greenwich Village lore, including documentary footage of a confrontation between musicians and the police when singing was banned in Washington Square Park. Cursory chapters deal with folk musicians and the civil rights movement and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s harassment of left-wing musicians. And at a certain point, the film abruptly jumps back to the late 1940s and ’50s to bring in the Weavers.

There are multiple reminiscences of the arrival on the scene of Bob Dylan, who was not interviewed for the film but who is shown performing a searing rendition of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Other valuable moments include rare clips of performers like Odetta (singing “Muleskinner Blues”), the gifted but nearly forgotten Fred Neil (“The Other Side of This Life”) and the young Joni Mitchell (“Night in the City”).

The movie’s structural binding ingredient is the voice of Susan Sarandon reading excerpts from “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village,” a 2008 recollection by Mr. Dylan’s onetime girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who met him in 1961, when she was 17 and he was 20.

But there is no organized chronology or analytical overview of those times beyond the remarks of those who were present, and too many of those are snippets of nostalgic boilerplate. The movie gives only the sketchiest description of the roots of acoustic folk music and the story of how it was absorbed into the pop mainstream.

“Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation” at least evokes the flavor of the era just before the music business exploded into a mass-market juggernaut. The film’s pleasures are the same ones offered by a sprawling, lavishly illustrated magazine spread.

Greenwich Village

Music That Defined a Generation

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Laura Archibald; written by Ms. Archibald, Rob Lindsay and Kevin Wallis; director of photography, Pete Howell; edited by Nicolas Kleiman, Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Wallis; produced by Ms. Archibald, Mr. Kleiman, Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Wallis; released by Kino Lorber Inc. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is not rated.

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