Filmmaker Karen Kramer spent seven years on Renegade Dreamers, including four years following a group of young contemporary spoken word artists and protest singers. She could have done something better with her time. A longtime downtown New Yorker who made The Ballad of Greenwich Village in 2005, Kramer initially set out to make a documentary about the coffeehouse scene around MacDougal and Bleecker Streets in the 1950s and ’60s, and the sections of Renegade Dreamers about the post–World War II Beat poets and folk singers, including Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Len Chandler, and others, as well as Woody Guthrie, are terrific, with rarely seen archival footage that is stirring and exciting. She speaks with such key figures as Wavy Gravy, Hettie Jones, Eric Andersen, Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, Maria Muldaur, David Amram, Izzy Young, Tom Paxton, and Richie Havens (some interview footage was completed for her previous film), who share intimate stories about their struggle against McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, anti-unionism, consumerism, and conformity. “They considered progressive thinking to be anti-American,” Peter Yarrow says of 1960s mainstream America, something that is true again today.
But that’s also where the documentary falls apart. The new generation of protest singers and spoken word activists Kramer focuses on are Matt Pless, Saroya Marsh, Gio Andollo, Tiffani Hillin, and Jeremy (Germ) DeHart, most of whom she discovered during the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park; unfortunately, these quirky young people fighting the status quo with their mouths and their guitars are not particularly compelling or even that interesting. While it’s great that they’re directly influenced by their forebears, they’re preaching to tiny choirs, a sliver of political music connoisseurs, and they don’t seem to be adding anything to the already vigorous and inclusive twenty-first-century discourse battling Wall Street, the Iraq War, racism, economic inequality, police brutality, and other societal ills. It’s hard to see these determined artists making any kind of real difference outside of their very limited circle. “We have to question everything. We can’t just take for granted what we’ve been handed,” one of them says. They should keep fighting the power and spreading the word every way they can, as we all should. But that doesn’t make them worthy of a documentary, or anywhere near as influential as the coffeehouse renegades of fifty years ago; instead they seem quaint, obsessed with a bygone style. Renegade Dreamers opens May 31 at Cinema Village, with daily Q&As following the 5:10 and 7:10 shows through June 6.