Few mediums can capture the rhythms and feelings of a moment, while simultaneously spurring it forward like music can. That’s the premise behind the documentary, Soundtrack for a Revolution, which chronicles the role that music played in the civil rights movement. Accompanying the film comes a compilation of the same name, featuring nine of the era’s most powerful freedom songs as performed by an eclectic mix of modern artists. While the spirit of the songs cannot be completely repressed, and several moments of inspiration manage to underscore the timelessness of the themes, Soundtrack for a Revolution too often feels like a high school Black History Month assembly – tentatively deferential renderings of material we have heard so many times that we’ve stopped actually listening.
Anthony Hamilton’s gravelly baritone proves an ideal vehicle to convey the stoic determination of the time period, and with background harmonies from The Blind Boys of Alabama, his slow burning rendition of “This May Be The Last Time” opens the album with the perfect mix of spiritual righteousness and world weary perseverance. However, the march quickly slows to a stroll when Angie Stone eschews the soul stylings that have typically marked the high points of her career for an indecisively jazz-inflected interpretation of “Wade in the Water” that somehow manages to meander despite a running time of just 2:37. Full-voiced British siren, Joss Stone injects “Eyes on the Prize” with a youthful exuberance that is missing on much of the album, but ultimately the performance still feels more like reverential tribute than authentic evocation. The minimalism of Wyclef Jean’s acoustic arrangement of “State of Mississippi” packs a raw urgency, but lacks the musical progression and momentum necessary to sustain it’s nearly six-minute duration.
The album does pick up towards the end. As the sole featured artist old enough to pull from firsthand memories of the civil rights era, Richie Havens lends a much-needed authenticity to the poignant “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” And, in one of the project’s surprisingly few collaborative moments, The Roots and TV on the Radio combine formidable chops for the show-stealing marching anthem, “Turn Me Around,” which brings together disparate elements of black music to implicitly place the song and the struggle into a larger context. It serves not only as a reminder of how these songs helped propel the movement onward, but also how powerful Soundtrack for a Revolution could have been had more of the selections been propelled by the spirit of the struggle rather than muted in deference to it.
– Jeff Harvey