Times they are a-changin’…for protest artists

BY ROSE ADAMS | “I’ve always been a rebel,” says Jeremy, or “Germ,” a young poet in Karen Kramer’s latest documentary, “Renegade Dreamers.” He speaks in a low voice, his eyes often wandering. “But I’ve always wanted to take my rebelliousness and channel it more productively through the art of protest.”

The same could be said for all the artists in “Renegade Dreamers” — a film about New York’s protest poets and musicians that makes its U.S. premiere at Cinema Village on May 31. Through interviews and performance footage, “Renegade Dreamers” deftly weaves together the stories of three young spoken-word poets and three folk singers who live on the margins, the poets chanting their verse in dimly lit cafes, the singers performing in subway stations.

Matt Pless, a young folk singer at a peace rally in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Karen Kramer)

Alongside their stories, Kramer interviews many of the leading figures of protest music and poetry, like Wavy Gravy, Peter Yarrow and Dave Van Ronk, who recall the Village’s rich history of the art form.

“I’ve always had an interest in people who challenge the status quo, who don’t heed to conformity,” said the film’s director, Karen Kramer. The Village-based filmmaker has produced several award-winning documentaries, including “The Jolo Serpent Handlers,” “Legacy of the Spirits” and “Haitian Song,” which have screened at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and an array of international film festivals.

“I was always fascinated by the people who were able to escape the conformity of America after World War II. They came to Greenwich Village and started putting their words and their questioning into poetry,” Kramer added.

Like its subjects, “Renegade Dreamers” is both down to earth and idealistic, gritty and reminiscent. The documentary digs deep into the Village’s history of protest music and spoken word. Impressive footage of anti-Vietnam War protests and performances at the famed Gaslight Cafe — where young artists like Bob Dylan got their start —immerse the viewer in the anti-establishment energy of that era. Older artists wax nostalgic remembering the close community the Gaslight Cafe fostered.

But the film’s contemporary subjects bring the viewer back to the unromantic present day. Life as an outsider isn’t easy, these artists remind us. It’s lonely, uncertain. Germ and his contemporaries embody what Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie once were: artists on the fringe. Or, renegade dreamers.

This space in between past and present is where the film gains much of its strength. By contrasting 1960s protest art to today’s version, Kramer hints at how our collective memory of the past has softened, turning what was once a radical, far-left movement into little more than an entry in a mainstream textbook.

The film’s balance between today and yesterday also reveals the ways in which protest art has changed over the decades. Today’s subversive artists don’t share the same tight-knit community their predecessors did. And the issues they tackle have broadened and changed.

But despite these differences, all of the film’s renegade dreamers share the same overall vision —one that the documentary communicates subtly and skillfully.

“The film isn’t about a person, it’s not about a cause,” said Kramer. “It’s about radical optimism.”

“Renegade Dreamers” will screen from May 31 to June 6 at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. Tickets $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors. For more information, visit https://www.cinemavillage.com/Now-Playing/renegade-dreamers.html.

One Response to Times they are a-changin’…for protest artists

  1. I look forward to seeing the film! Meanwhile, here's a protest song I perform. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etMTwQX6yzk

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