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Anthony Hamilton and Blind Boys of Alabama.

Soundtrack for a Revolution

  • Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
  • Classification: NA

During the civil-rights movement, millions of Americans from all backgrounds joined their voices to protest against segregation and racial violence in the American south. Their songs fuelled marchers and protesters, gave comfort to those at sit-ins - and sent a message to oppressors.

That vital connection between music and the movement is explored in Soundtrack for a Revolution, an elegantly crafted new documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (Oscar winners for their 2003 doc Twin Towers).

The film moves chronologically from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, weaving together archival material, some rarely seen, and new interviews with prominent activists (notably the singer Harry Belafonte) and ordinary "foot soldiers." While King's prominent leadership anchors the film, the compelling individual stories lend perspective and emotional weight.

While there were many new protest songs during this period - with the American folk music revival happening in tandem - the "freedom songs" that resounded were older gospel hymns, slave chants and labour songs, often belted out with reworked verses filled with topical references.

When it comes to exploring music's role, though, Soundtrack mostly refrains from discussion. Instead, the era's most popular and potent songs "speak" for themselves through dynamic studio performances by John Legend, Angie Stone, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, the Roots, gospel divas Mary Mary, the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir (of Birmingham, Ala.), the Blind Boys of Alabama and Greenwich Village folk legend Richie Haven.

The filmmakers divide Soundtrack into chapters focusing on key events or actions - lunch counter sit-ins, the 1963 march on Washington, episodes of violence, and so on - while the performance segments allows us to contemplate song lyrics with minimal visual distraction. With young audiences definitely in mind, the film puts a fresh spin on the issues and struggles of the civil-rights movement.

Soundtrack for a Revolution screens in Toronto at the Bloor Cinema, Feb. 19-23.

Special to The Globe and Mail