Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation is a well-constructed documentary about the rise of folk music in NYC’s Greenwich Village during the 1960s. Through interviews, archival footage of performances, and narrated statements by Bob Dylan’s former girlfriend, this movie serves as a fairly good primer on the topic.
Over the course of 90 minutes, this film offers both an overview of the subject as well as a more personal look into how New York became a hotbed of political activism and artistic expression. Established musicians describe nervousness during their early performances, clashes with the US political machine, and artists’ earnest efforts to influence the world around them through song.
In terms of interviewees, GV: MtDaG scored big – Kris Kristofferson, Jose Feliciano, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, Carly Simon, Arlo Guthrie and Buffy Sainte-Marie are all on hand to share their opinions and recollections. Many more familiar names are present, but you’d have to check the pic’s official website for the whole list. Susan Sarandon’s soothing voice narrates the writings of Suze Rotolo, who dated Bob Dylan from 1961 to 1964.
Better still, this doc’s collection of old performances is jaw-dropping. Whether it’s Mama Cass in black & white performing on TV, or Richie Havens in full color at a huge concert, you will be kind of spellbound by one great bit of footage after another. Tying it all together are the neat animation sequences that open the film and provide little interludes between topics. Director Laura Archibald has a lot of great ideas and resources to work with here.
I enjoyed the movie for two reasons: I used to live in the Village, and I know little about either the 60’s or folk music. I loved seeing old photos of my former home, and the way people used to bask in Washington Square Park decades before I did the same thing. I also liked learning about the artists of the time, and the archival shots are all the more effective since so many of the musicians herein are interviewed by Ms. Archibald. Hell, I could just have tuned out the conversation and simply enjoyed the exceptional soundtrack.
The problem for some viewers will probably lie in how the doc is organized and the weakness of one particular segment. For starters, I thought that Greenwich Village was broken up by particular songs – the interviews and conversations frequently focus on one specific song, and that tune and the artist who created it are discussed at length until we see old video of the song being performed. However, although these segments feel like natural stopping points – and are followed by a brief fade to black – there seems to be another structure altogether.
After many of these songs, there is a little animated sequence and then a caption like “Rise of the Singer/Songwriter” or “Sociopolitical Movement.” The flaw is that, sometimes, the actual topics being discussed don’t perfectly match the caption of the segment that they’re in. This can give the movie a bit of a cluttered feeling.
The larger problem lies in the sociopolitical portion of the movie. It involves a lot of people telling the audience things that they already know, and they’re speaking so generally that we’re not really receiving the special insights that these famous interviewees can provide. It might almost have been better to have had Sarandon recite academic reports on the topic, or the comments of contemporary journalists.
I was nearly put off by the Vietnam footage that is shown in this segment, but it wasn’t the same old material that I’ve seen many times before. So it’s impressive that Ms. Archibald could turn my opinion around and overcome the cliché that was staring me in the face. But why does the quality of the interviews fall flat during this one part of the film? It feels like it takes a long time for anyone to actually say anything, and that’s not an issue earlier in the documentary.
Filmbuff has made Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation available for online rental or purchase through iTunes, Amazon, and PlayStation Network. If you’re a music lover, I definitely recommend that you check it out.