In an age when pop music feels entirely defined by Gangnam Style, which ever Will Smith child has a career at a given moment, and worst of all Justin Bieber, it’s easy to forget a time when it felt like number one hits actually held some social significance. There are still plenty of talented artists doing wonderful things. That will never change. However, the naïve concept that a drugged up philosopher with a guitar could go on the road and change the world is sadly over. Laura Archibald’s documentary Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation taps directly into that sense nostalgia and regret. Her documentary honors and exaggerates the folk music explosion out of Greenwich Village in the 60s. Most of the surviving legends pop up as talking heads, while endless archival footage and performance clips provide a gentle smile of recognition. Unfortunately Archibald is far too enamored with her subject to offer audiences much more than hero worship, but considering that somehow this documentary hadn’t been made before now, I suppose it’s forgivable.
These days Greenwich Village is a hub of overpriced rental units for semi-trendy rich folk, but back in the mythical 60s it offered affordable cockroach-packed housing for ambitious hippies with musical aspirations. For a certain chunk of a generation, it was ground zero for the counterculture movement; a place where burnouts and dreamers could grab guitars and try to be poets. Many lived the dream to pop icon success, but most just sucked up the atmosphere for endless elderly windbag remembrance.
Archibald’s doc talks mostly to people in the second category, but a few from the first join in and all of them are chatted up with near-religious reverence. The story starts with outsiders discovering old folk albums to cover at open mics. Soon folks like Bob Dylan created the mold for the 60s folk icon and a musical movement was born. In some cases, the end result was pop success, other times music and political activism became indistinguishable. Regardless, everyone who Archibald interviewed in the movie remembers the period as the greatest time of their lives.
Sadly, the movie doesn’t really have much of a cohesive theme or structure beyond misty-eyed memories of the times and the legends. It’s a collection of interview-driven tangents that often don’t even unfold chronologically. It’s rather messy and unfocused, but sheer love of the music/era that the director shares with her interviewees holds it all together. Hearing on of the Simon Sisters recall a night when the Smothers Brothers suggested they join forces for a collaboration since they were both siblings (only for the punchline to be that collaboration would be “something sexual”) or artists recalling writing songs in their bathtubs because it was the only place in their apartments not covered wit roaches has undeniable charm. Likewise the sections on the political activism have a resonant sting, particularly when Archibald weaves in archival footage of the “beatnik riot” between musicians and police officers. Unless you despise the music (and many do), it’s impossible not to at least be entertained by this movie.
The trouble is that Archibald never really strives to produce anything above a Behind The Music-style tribute and couldn’t pull together interviews with major players like Bob Dylan. Given the immense cultural importance of this music, time, and place, the movie should be more than just adoring fluff, especially when it’s already a hair over two hours in length. Yet even when delving into the darker or political aspects of the story, Archibald never wavers from her warm, friendly, nostalgic tone. The only thing that prevents that letdown from killing the movie is the fact that the folk music movement was ultimately a positive space of friends and friendly competitors who hoped for nothing more than to inspire peace and happiness, even when backing social upheaval.
Perhaps that’s a limitation of the subject matter and the warm reverence all of the interviewees have for the subject. However, you never get the impression that anyone Archibald speaks to is being challenged or delving into anecdotes and memories they haven’t been asked about endlessly for decades. As a result, it’s hard to label Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation a definitive account of this material, but in the absence of any superior documentary on the subject, it’ll do just fine for now. The perfect night out for an aging hippy or a lost 20something who wishes they were alive back then to be one. It certainly succeeds in making the 60s Greenwich Village scene feel like a magical fantasyland, even if that’s not the whole story.