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Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation

2013
Distributed by Kino Lorber Edu, 333 West 39 St, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018; 212-629-6880
Produced by Laura Archibald, Joe Cecala (Executive Producer), Nicolas Kleiman, Rob Lindsay and Kevin Wallis
Directed by Laura Archibald
DVD , color, 92 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Folk Music, Popular Music, American History, Social and Political Unrest, Greenwich Village, New York City, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Suze Rotolo


Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 7/11/2013

At the onset of Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation, Kris Kristofferson provides what is essentially the documentary’s thesis: “Greenwich Village is where the rest of the world looked for inspiration.” As viewers absorb the history of this movement in American music, it becomes clear just how influential the Greenwich Village scene with its nurturing art community was during the late 1950s through early 1970s.

Directed by Laura Archibald, she constructs her film from archival performance documentation, contextual footage of the Village, still photography, and newly captured interviews with notable surviving figures of the American folk music community, as well as important footage borrowed from Daniel Drasin’s documentary Sunday (self-released in 1961), an earlier work about events in Washington Square Park in the Village. The audio fidelity is even and reliable throughout the film, rendering the oral histories easily discernible and the performances highly enjoyable. The pace of the narrative is quick, to the point, relevant, and deep enough for viewers to garner an understanding, but not too deep to lose audiences to endless sub-references or extensive recollections.

A commercial interest for traditional American folk music began in the early 1950s with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and The Weavers paving the way for the ascension of a new group of younger folk musicians who not only paid respect to traditional works, but composed their own songs. These newer compositions reflected contemporary values, concerns, and modes of expression common to the 1960s. Greenwich Village helps the viewer understand the lineage of a figure like Pete Seeger through to a later rising artist such as Joni Mitchell, while rock music concurrently developed and the two forms of popular music cross-pollinated. This is the movie at its most useful: instructing on the central role that the Village played in cultivating and nourishing an American art form.

There is little to criticize about this documentary. One unfortunate and noteworthy omission is the absence of Bob Dylan from the new interviews, even with a chapter in the documentary devoted to his influence. His lack of contribution is especially odd given that the autobiography, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo (Broadway Books, 2009) is used to help frame the narrative. Furthermore, Rotolo was Dylan’s girlfriend during the early 1960s, and she is seen clutching his arm on the cover of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in 1963 on Columbia Records. Excerpts from Rotolo’s autobiography are read by Susan Sarandon, who also delivers even-tempered voice-over commentary in other sections of the film. The narration is effectively limited, leaving room for the performers and other participants (store owners, café owners, managers) to convey first-hand accounts in their own words.

Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation is a solid analysis of a concise era of American history – culturally, politically, and socio-economically. The documentary makes the case for the Village serving as the heart of the American folk music scene during the 1960s. This is a title that not only has a place in any serious music library, but also in any media library at a North American academic institution.