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Meet the Filmmakers: Dan Sturman--'Soundtrack for a Revolution'

By Tom White

Editor's note: IDA and the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum will be presenting a screening of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's Soundtrack for a Revolution this Monday, January 11. Here's a Q&A with Sturman when the film screened as part of IDA's DocuWeeks.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Dan Sturman, director/producer/writer, with Bill Guttentag, of Soundtrack for a Revolution..

Synopsis: Soundtrack for a Revolution tells the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music--the freedom songs protesters sang in their fight for justice and equality. The film features vibrant new performances by top artists, including John Legend, Wyclef Jean, Joss Stone and The Roots; riveting archival footage; and interviews with civil rights foot soldiers and leaders, including Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond and Ambassador Andrew Young.

IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Dan Sturman: I took a college class from Robb Moss, a great teacher and a great documentary filmmaker, which turned out to be a transformative experience. I knew nothing about documentary, and we were thrown into the world by making cinema vérité 16mm films. For our class project, we followed Gary Hart on the campaign trail in New Hampshire as he tried to recover from the "Monkey Business" scandal.

IDA: What inspired you to make Soundtrack for a Revolution?  

DS: My first job out of college, I worked on a civil rights film, A Time for Justice, by Charles Guggenheim. As part of our research, I got hold of a three-LP set from the Smithsonian, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement. It's a compilation of freedom songs that were recorded live at mass meetings and protests during the 1950s and '60s. Although the sound quality isn't always great, it's an incredible historical document, and the energy and power of the music is just overwhelming. I'd been listening to that album for many years, and then one day I saw Amandla!, a powerful documentary about the music of the anti-Apartheid movement. It occurred to me that a similar film could be made about the American civil rights movement.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

DS: Music! Everyone said it was gonna be hard, and they were absolutely right.  Attracting top talent and then juggling their tour schedules, their labels, their management, then getting them into the studio, etc. ,etc.--it was all really challenging. It was only possible thanks to our great music producer, Corey Smyth, who was able to connect us directly with artists, pull in favors, and help us navigate the general insanity of the music business. Ultimately, we held out for the performers we really cared about, and so the film ended up taking twice as long to complete. I think the idea behind the film really resonated with many artists, and their good will and kindness was astonishing. As just one example, John Legend made a special trip, flying roundtrip, New York to LA, in the same day on his own dime so that he could record for us. 

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DS: The film really was a collaboration among so many different people, each of them providing creative input that helped the film evolve. Each musical performance contributed to the film in ways that we couldn't have anticipated beforehand. Part of the joy of working on the project was being able to sit in a studio and watch incredible musicians as they worked through the songs and made them their own.

IDA: As you've screened Soundtrack for a Revolution--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DS: We screened at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, which was truly thrilling. It was a bit strange to find ourselves screening in such a glamorous international setting.  The festival set up 800 deck chairs on the beach in front of a huge outdoor screen overlooking the Mediterranean. Every seat was taken, and a few hundred more people stood on the boardwalk behind. The warm-up act was a Norwegian band playing a selection of Scandinavian movie music. And then our film started...and about two-thirds of the way through, it went out of sync. Not just a few frames out of sync, but something like eight seconds out of sync--apparently, a glitch in the digital projection transfer that couldn't be fixed. And so the film kept playing to the very end, wildly out of sync the whole way through. It was agonizing for me. But to my astonishment, the audience--including the standing-room only crowd--stayed to watch the entire film. I guess perhaps it went down easier for viewers who were focusing on the French subtitles instead of the voices. As consolation, I've been telling myself that the film must be so gripping that sync doesn't even matter.       

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

DS: Gimme Shelter, Dont Look Back, Hoop Dreams, American Movie, Man on Wire, Waltz with Bashir, The Staircase, Sherman's March, Control Room, many more. 

Soundtrack for a Revolution will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.