The concept behind “Soundtrack for a Revolution” is both a means and end at once. In this competent survey of African American folk music in the civil rights movement, directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman pair reminiscences with recreation, but it’s never quite the transcendent aural experience suggested by the two-pronged premise. While interviewees such as Harry Belafonte and John Lewis recall gripping — and often quite harrowing — anecdotes from their countless protests at the behest of Martin Luther King, the filmmakers frequently cut to studio performances of classic songs from the period performed by contemporary artists, including Wyclef Jean and The Roots. The music sounds great, and the stories never lack an essential dramatic edge, but at a certain point the movie starts to feel directionless. Ironically, the songs gradually become a red herring as the anecdotes grow increasingly general. By its triumphant conclusion, “Soundtrack for a Revolution” morphs into a celebration of the Obama era — which is all well and good, if a bit of a distraction from the movie’s supposed focus.
Still, the story has a nice flow. Guttentag and Sturman correctly assume that marrying civil rights music to modern performers allows it to solidify in the present. In their previous documentary, “Nanking,” young actors read letters by Western expatriates living in China at the time of Japan’s 1937 invasion; here, the performances have a greater legitimacy due to the emotion expressed by various musicians. I had a hard time buying Woody Harrelson’s sincerity in “Nanking,” but John Legend (in the new movie) sounds like he means it. Having established a unique approach, however, “Soundtrack” veers into familiar territory and becomes a routine account of a tumultuous chapter in American history. Washington protests, police riots and King’s assassination all unfold with palpable sensitivity, but the music doesn’t drive the narrative as much as it should. The result is yet another run-of-the-mill historical document. If nothing else, it’s got a killer soundtrack.