Wanting to be a totemic documentary, Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation behaves altogether too much like the generation that got defined – yep, its starts out energetic and fresh only to age into tedious self-importance. By the end, the doc would have you believe that those few blocks in Manhattan are the creative centre of the universe, Greenwich Global Village, and that not just the music but all things great and progressive, from the civil rights movement and the women’s revolution to the Occupy protests and anti-bullying campaigns, sprang straight from the headwaters of Washington Square Park. At least, that’s what director Laura Archibald is selling, but I ain’t buying.
To her credit, she has assembled quite the collection of talking/singing heads – Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie, Ritchie Havens, Buffy St. Marie and Carly Simon among them. Like many an oldster, they revel in the chance to root about in the memory bank, turning their mental clocks back to the decade when “things were so free and so open.”
Undeniably, the Village in the early ’60s was a place of real musical synergy, where traditional folk and blues and jazz and emerging rock kept convivial company, where singer-songwriters were spawned and flourished, and where Sunday in the park was a literal circle of song – until the city passed a noise ordinance and the cops rushed in to bust some heads. The found footage of that little set-to, circa 1961, makes for an arresting sight, although I’m not sure it qualifies as “the birth of the protest movement.”
Meanwhile, back with the grizzled heads, musical debts are being acknowledged and the vaults are full-to-bursting – Tom Chapin’s debt to The Weavers, Seeger’s to Woody Guthrie, Buffy’s to Seeger, and everybody’s to Dylan, who, ever the wise man, is once again conspicuous by his absence. That doesn’t prevent the others from recycling their war stories about Bobby back in the day: Paxton remembers the lyrics of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall fallin’ right out of the boy’s typewriter. The best Bobby moment, though, is an ancient audio clip where Dylan, interviewed by Oscar Brand, is feeding him a feast of outrageous lies about spending his formative years in New Mexico touring with a circus carnival. And Oscar is eating it up.
In fact, all the best moments here are archival, especially the magnetic, if truncated, performance segments – an impossibly young Joni Mitchell doing Night in the City, Harry Chapin in Taxi, Melanie in Candles in the Rain, Mama Cass heading a group with the unlikely name of The Big 3, and a way-too-brief peak at the under-appreciated Fred Neil. So sweet, but so short. Since music is the defining force here, more of it, and less of the self-aggrandizing chatter, would have made for a happier return to those Bleeker Street cafes.
Also, with such an army of oldsters to marshal, Archibald gets a bit lost in the chronology – one instant we’re in the late ’60s with Tricky Dick Nixon, the next we’ve leapfrogged back to the ’50s with Bad Joe McCarthy and his blacklist. Her lone attempt at a connecting thread is to insert intermittent readings from Suze Rotolo’s memoir of the period, which might have worked were the musty tome not full of bromides on the order of “The 1960s were an amazing time” and “We believed that we would change the world, and we did.”
Sorry, but if high palaver is what you want, at least go for the entertaining brand. Skip this doc and read Dylan’s own Chronicles, where the chapter on his arrival in the Village is a deliciously de-mythologizing mix of candour, colour and fabrication. Of course, Bob was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.