It's possible, although it takes an immense reservoir of willpower, not to sing along while watching "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song." I managed to stay silent, although I was in a press screening with other critics and knew the teasing would be ceaseless.
It's not just that the songs ("We Shall Overcome," "This Land Is Your Land" "Turn Turn Turn" and so many, many others) are so woven into America's DNA that we feel like we were born knowing the choruses. It's that Seeger himself never seemed more at home onstage than when his audience was drowning out his own voice with their own.
It's that spirit that imbues "The Power of Song" and elevates it above the usual musician biopic. This is a great man, but you sense that Seeger (still around and spry at 88) may feel his greatest legacy is not what he accomplished, but what his presence gave others the courage to accomplish. Even if it was just singing along with a roomful of strangers.
The film was obviously made with the active participation of Seeger and his family (his wife Toshi is listed as an executive producer), and director Jim Brown is given an immense wealth of archival materials - photos, concert footage, newspaper articles - to tell Seeger's amazing story.
At 90 minutes, the film just flies by as it gallops from one watershed moment in Seeger's life to the next, from his upbringing by musicologist parents to his controversial years as a member of the Communist Party, from his tenure with the wildly popular Weavers to his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and subsequent 17-year ban from television.
Seeger, soft-spoken and courtly, just does not flinch from any of the many challenges thrown his way and, once one is overcome, seems to actively seek out the next. He simply can't imagine a world in which he would do anything other than the right thing. (His HUAC testimony, in which he not only refuses to testify but seems positively affronted that the committee might think he would, is priceless.) It's the musical performances, which have been remastered, that are the real treasures here. They range from lost footage from Seeger's short-lived public television show, rare clips of the Weavers performing on television, and a spellbinding clip of Seeger's notorious performance of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on the Smothers Brothers' television show, which ended that television ban. While Seeger seems genial and amiable everywhere else in the film, he positively seethes his way through a song about military folly that could be arguing against today's "surge."
Seeger's participation also likely helped Brown secure some high-powered talking heads, and among those singing his praises are Bruce Springsteen (who recorded an album of Seeger covers a couple of years ago), Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
And while the film obviously aims to put Seeger in the best possible light, it's also pretty honest about him as a person. In interviews with his wife and children, it's clear that Seeger's pursuit of his vision, which included moving the family to a secluded cabin in upstate New York, sometimes came at the expense of the dreams of those closest to him.
At 88, Seeger swears that his voice is fading, and when we see him in a 2004 Carnegie Hall concert, his grandson is sharing lead vocals on every song. But fading is not the same as mellowing, judging by the lingering shot of the old man standing in a snowbank on a street corner, holding up a little hand-lettered sign that reads "PEACE."
\ PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG
Stars: Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan Rated: Not rated Length: 1:30 Where: Westgate