Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation is sometimes pleasantly wistful and nostalgic, particularly when offering various clips of folk artists singing songs that would become, at times, almost instantly legendary. The earnestness and naïveté of many of these performances, qualities that non-fans find insufferable, are almost poignantly abstract when glimpsed through the prism of a contemporary American pop culture that often flaunts its mercenary insincerity as a badge of honor. Watching the artists who haunted Greenwich Village in a pivotal 12 years of American life, from 1961 to 1973, from a contemporary pop culture presided over by Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian, invites a reasonable question: What the hell happened? And what did the protests associated with the American folk-music movement of the 1960s and early 1970s ultimately accomplish?
These are a number of variables inherent to those questions (several more wars, the rise of “greed is good,” the rise of the Internet), but they're of little interest to director Laura Archibald, which is a disappointment, as the notions of legacy and relevancy occasionally and self-consciously inform the sentiments of her interview subjects, which include an impressive list of legends such as Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, Don McLean, Peter Yarrow, Arlo Gutherie, Lucy and Carly Simon, among others. It's often said in the film that the music of the Greenwich Village folk scene was a reaction to social turmoil such as, most obviously, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and that the artists, attempting to affect change, generally believed that the pursuit of monetary gain was the concern of sell-outs who embraced the conventional suburban child-rearing brainwashing of mainstream society.
But, of course, some of these artists, such as Kristofferson, or especially Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell (both of whom are discussed, though neither participated) did make hefty profits while pursuing careers that would lead to lives as cultural icons, while other artists with more severe political convictions paid the price of comparative obscurity, and this is the elephant in the room that Archibald distractingly fails to address. Archibald clearly intends this film as a tribute to music that's of considerable cultural importance, but she succumbs so mightily to hero worship that she inadvertently confirms the stereotype of folk artists as impractical hippy-dippies with their heads entirely stuck in the clouds—or somewhere else. These artists are never allowed to be citizens of a cultural movement of perhaps partially unquantifiable political importance, and they're never allowed to be flawed human beings who might feel, years later, as if they signed up for a hopeless national battle. Archibald only offers the artists to us as icons, and the sentimentality quickly grows absurd. You may be forgiven for wondering, as various artists testify over and over to the social change they came to New York to affect: Didn't just one of these kids flee to a hip, inexpensive cultural hub out of a desire to party and get laid?
The film is short on details and fatally long on obvious generalities such as “They were as much reporters as they were musicians” and “We came to find an idea of a new tomorrow.” It's obvious that Archibald's participants, who've been giving interviews for years, haven't been asked questions that offer the possibility of coaxing them out of their comfort zone, and as a result the filmmaker fails to capture the intoxicating despair and outrage of the best American folk music. Archibald's approach is fatally safe: She often turns poets into self-congratulatory windbags.