The revolution, as it turns out, will be televised. It's on PBS tonight, the perfect hour for enjoying a Molotov cocktail from the pillowy comfort of your couch!
There's nothing particularly inflammatory about "Get Up, Stand Up: The Story of Pop and Protest," a two-hour documentary about blowin' in the wind, giving peace a chance, promising that "we" shall overcome, wondering if "they" know it's Christmas, not playing Sun City, and otherwise fighting the power. Though the two-hour program focuses on musicians whose mostly raw outrage over various sociopolitical flash points has manifested itself in art and/or activism, "Get Up, Stand Up" comes off as something of a clinical exercise -- a case study, perhaps, in the perils of simply talking about revolution. (Tracy Chapman, you're hereby excused.)
Even when the protest music plays on, there's a certain emotional disconnect: Although history can be repeated via videotape and interviews, the ferment of days and issues gone by apparently cannot.
There are exceptions, of course. Hearing Billie Holiday sing about "black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" and "strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" while lynching photos fill the screen is chilling.
There's something immediate and visceral, too, about watching the revolutionary proto-punk band MC5 literally tear up the stage while bashing through "Kick Out the Jams." Much like the famous footage of Jimi Hendrix doing his fuzzed-out version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock (also included, natch), the detonative MC5 video serves as a perfect summation of the turbulent spirit of America in the late 1960s.
And, in a stroke of editing genius, we hear the old folkie Pete Seeger talk about his lyrics to "Turn, Turn, Turn" (adapted from a passage in Ecclesiastes), as the Byrds' frontman Roger McGuinn sings the song and strums a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.
But for every hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising moment, there are multiples that fail to inspire when viewed through the thick, scholarly filter of history and hindsight that's employed by the program's producers.
Take the show's starting point: Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant who became a union activist in the early 20th century and wrote songs to help spread the labor movement gospel.
Narrator Chuck D. -- the stentorian leader of the hyperpolitical rap group Public Enemy, and normally a pretty interesting guy -- dutifully but dullishly explains Hill's significance to the pop-and-protest story, calling him "the father of modern protest music," etc., and Seeger hypes him, too, as "Casey Jones (The Union Scab)" provides the musical backdrop. All fine and well, but . . . Zzzzzzzz.
If we hadn't taken notes during the plodding segment, about the only thing we might have remembered is that Hill coined the phrase "pie in the sky." (He did. Seriously -- in "The Preacher and the Slave," his most famous song. Though "famous" is a relative term, and you most certainly won't be hearing "The Preacher and the Slave" as anybody's ringtone anytime soon.)
Anyway, the academic approach is thus established for the rest of "Get Up, Stand Up" (the title comes from the Bob Marley song), and so segments on the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid, hip-hop, 9/11, punk, Live Aid, Band Aid, Farm Aid, Marley and Bob Dylan, among others, are far less inspired and inspiring than you'd reasonably expect.
You might also expect a program about pop music and protest to include at least some sort of interview with Dylan. But you'd be expecting too much, apparently.
On the other hand, there's plenty of Michael Franti, whose Bay Area rap group, Spearhead, didn't exactly set the world on fire. But he's given a prominent place in the program, while more popular and, thus, wider-reaching artists and social commentators such Rage Against the Machine and Midnight Oil are left out.
And here's something that's likely to torque Kenneth Tomlinson, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's outgoing chief who's tried his best to, um, right the PBS ship: Barely a mention is made of counterprotest music and other more conservative stuff. Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" gets a nod, but Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" does not. Toby Keith? Never heard of him, apparently. Even Ted Nugent, the most outspoken right-winger in rock, gets short shrift.
Says Chuck D., in an early disclaimer: "This film doesn't . . . represent every point of view."
And it isn't nearly as compelling as it should be, either. Where's Kanye West when you need him?
Get Up, Stand Up: The Story of Pop and Protest (two hours) airs at 10 p.m. on Channel 26 and 9 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.