Still from Soundtrack for a Revolution courtesy of VKPR.
If you’re a fan of The Roots, John Legend, Wyclef Jean, Joss Stone, The Blind Boys of Alabama, or TV on the Radio, then Soundtrack for a Revolution is a documentary you’d be foolish to miss.
Screening tonight at the Bloor Cinema as part of Doc Soup Toronto and Black History Month (and playing daily at the Bloor from February 19 to 23), Soundtrack for a Revolution tells the story of the civil rights movement with the help of the soulful protest songs that once motivated a generation to stand against racial intolerance. Contemporary artists, including those mentioned above, recorded updated versions of the songs for the film.
Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (the team behind Nanking and the Academy Award–winning Twin Towers), the doc was shortlisted for this year’s Oscars and thrilled audiences when it played at the Tribeca and Cannes film festivals last year.
We caught up with one of the doc’s directors, Bill Guttentag, to talk about the artists featured in the film, the texture of Martin Luther King’s tie, and how watching his movie isn’t like going to the dentist.
Torontoist: How did you end up choosing the artists who performed the songs in the film?
Bill Guttentag: We wanted to include the music because it was part of the DNA of the civil rights movement. We were looking for what would be an innovative new way to tell that story and we knew that the movement’s music history would be the trick; when we decided on the seed of the film, which was to have modern artists reinterpret the songs, it was all about finding the right fit. We had a great musical supervisor, Corey Smyth, who also did Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and he knew we needed people who could really deliver. There are lots of modern artists who can’t sing, and we needed artists who not only were attracted to the project but also could pull it off physically. I think we got some amazing performances.
How familiar were the artists with the music they were performing?
There were varying levels of knowledge of the songs among the performers. Before they came into the studio, we sent the artists footage showing how their song would be used. We sat down with The Roots and showed them what happened during the famous Selma to Montgomery march and it gave them a greater sense of what their scene was all about. It allowed them to really put their hearts in it and see where we were coming from. When John Legend arrived, I was setting up the cameras and getting everything ready, and just an hour later he was ready to go with the song. I was like, “Wow, that was really fast,” and he told me “We used to sing this song in church and it was ‘I woke up this morning with my mind on Jesus,'” which for the movement had been turned into “Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom.”
The Roots and TV on the Radio record a song for Soundtrack for a Revolution.
Why is it important to preserve these songs?
The songs are part of the history. These songs enabled people to sing things they couldn’t say. They inspired the fight. The U.S. isn’t a perfect nation but it’s a changed nation. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 and you have an African-American president elected in 2008. I think there have been positive changes in this country and part of that great change came from peaceful non-violent protesters who, with courage and conviction, changed the whole nation and these songs are their anthems.
How did you track down some of the stock footage in the doc?
Some of the footage had been out there in the past, but a lot of it we were able to restore—thanks to better and more affordable technology—so it could be seen for the first time. Some things just turned up recently, like pictures of the bombing of the Freedom Riders bus in Mississippi, and Rosa Parks’s and Martin Luther King’s mugshots.
Once you start attacking and researching events and tracking down documentation of them, new things always show up. Sometimes it’s just someone’s dad who took pictures. It’s an intense research experience that, with a little luck, pays off. Nobody watching the film sees the endless phone calls it took; when they see a piece of footage, they just think, “Wow, that’s amazing footage.”
Which moment from the shoot sticks out for you as being the most memorable?
When you do an interview with anyone on a subject like this, people are extremely generous with their time and go into this sort of place where they start remembering things as if they’re going back in time. As an interviewer, you’re trying to set the stage for this kind of thing. People would get quite emotional; I would, the whole crew would too. You can’t help but be moved by the courage of these stories. At one point when we were having a camera issue and weren’t filming, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles leaned over to me and said that, from the day Martin Luther King was killed, he still remembered the texture of his tie and what it felt like. Somehow he had drifted back into that day. And I think that’s what you try to do as a filmmaker, you try and capture people who have gone back to that day and can give you that insight. There’s an intimacy that comes with first-hand reports. I have nothing against experts and academics, but nothing feels the same as first-hand accounts. It’s not just about what they say, but it’s how they say it like no one else can.
A lot of people think any documentary about the civil rights movement is automatically depressing. What about this documentary trumps that assumption?
As the father of a teenage daughter, you’re trying to get people interested in a subject they might not otherwise be interested in. They might come to see stars like Wyclef Jean and then leave educated and informed. For the most part people see documentaries about civil rights like going to the dentist. I think there are some that are like that, but there are also a lot of really great films out there that aren’t. This story certainly has heartbreak, and there were people you’ve never heard of who gave their lives for the cause, but there’s also a sense of triumph and victory in the film. People did change, and even if there are still tough things going on now, we know it was truly horrible back then and the lessons still apply to today.
Matt Thomas is a filmmaker, an arts and culture writer, and currently an associate editor at Fab Magazine.