Film Review: Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation

Its blandly generic title is all too disappointingly germane to this loving but far from incisive documentary covering a vital time in music history.

In this age dominated by overproduced, emptily repetitive pop music, with its noxious accessories like Auto-Tune wherein faulty voices can be manipulated into soulless perfection, the sweetly earnest, often politically deep folk music of the 1960s and early ’70s may sound refreshingly more simple, human and resonant than ever. Laura Archibald’s documentary Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation attempts to give us a full-scale portrait of that era.

To do so, she has been careful to elucidate the context of that transfiguring time which witnessed the birth of the singer-songwriter, and amassed an impressive number of surviving interviewees: Pete Seeger, Judy Collins (looking more like a Valkyrie than ever), a near-unrecognizable Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin, Buffy Sainte-Marie, a now-avuncular John Sebastian, Lucy and Carly Simon, etc. Although her film is warm and affectionate in the extreme, and filled with wonderful vintage performance clips, Archibald unfortunately misses the mark. None of the speakers has a chance to say anything deeply revelatory, as her decision to jump around from artist to artist offers nothing more than sound bytes of often repetitive information about how the Village was once a lively, affordable, and sympathetic mixing pot of political and musical energies, so different from the pricey playground for movie stars and hedge-fund types that it is today, and blanket statements like “They were journalists as much as they were musicians.”

Along with all the bright-eyed, youthful, happy vibes, Archibald also evokes the House Committee on Un-American Activities-engendered blacklisting which ruined so many careers of liberal thinkers branded by the government as Communist insurgents, but again, the treatment is unhappily cursory. One yearns, for example, to hear the full story of Buffy Sainte Marie’s persecution which has made her, in her words, a star in Canada but basically unknown when she crosses the border into the U.S. That ever-admirable and staunch resister to this heinous pressure, Pete Seeger, does, however, manage to come through with his usual eloquence, wondering, “What in the world is an un-American activity?” But too much time is given extolling the wonder of Bob Dylan, who was undoubtedly hugely influential but, as he does not appear as one of the interviewees, takes undue time away from the others who are so movingly present.

Again, the performance clips do help immeasurably. I was struck by the resemblance to Adele of the young Mama Cass Elliott, with her big body and big, pealing voice; other highlights include Phil Ochs’ wonderful, immortally prescient “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” José Feliciano’s funny impersonation of Dylan’s vocal eccentricities through the years, Richie Havens’ imperishably inspiriting “Freedom,” and the Goddess herself, Joni Mitchell, singing the rare “Night in the City” with the sexiest, horsiest overbite since Gene Tierney.