‘Renegade Dreamers’ Salutes the Power of a Song, a Guitar & a Street Corner

There’s something heartening in Karen Kramer’s Renegade Dreamers, a documentary about socially conscious singers and poets in modern-day Greenwich Village.

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Mattt, a city folksinger.

Kramer links her contemporary artists to the Beat poets and folksingers of the 1960s, an era most people have long assumed is as over as Beatle wigs.

Kramer, whose previous films include The Ballad of Greenwich Village, clearly loves that turf and just as clearly rejects the notion that it has been scrubbed clean of character or any real passion and reduced to a gentrified ‘hood of interest only to nostalgia tourists.

Renegade Dreamers focuses on a half-dozen artists who are writing and performing what might loosely be called topical material. Some of the artists use the term “protest.” Others do not, tacitly agreeing with ’60s veterans like Bob Dylan that it’s restrictive.

Almost all the artists, like Kramer herself, tie their work into the legacies of the Beat movement and the early ’60s folk revival.

One artist explains that he’s addressing the dangers of Wall Street the same way Dylan was talking about the Vietnam War.

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Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg.

Kramer intersperses new footage and interviews with vintage clips of Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and other well-known names from that earlier era.

The vintage material creates an interesting dichotomy.

On the one hand, it reinforces the idea that folk music, poetry, topical art and their kin fall into a continuum.

Since the beginning of time, those genres have provided a voice for people outside of power. They are an essential element of the human conversation.

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Roya, spoken word artist.

On the other hand, none of the contemporary artists on whom Kramer focuses — Matt, Jeremy, Tiffani, Roya and others — has made an impact anything like the ’50s and ’60s artists in those black-and-white clips.

Kramer’s subjects, mostly, are busking on the streets, in the park or in the subway. They sing and speak as most of New York rushes by, often presumably trying to avoid eye contact.

Renegade viewers, too, won’t get a full sense of the music and poetry these new artists are creating. Kramer films a verse here, a stanza there, but doesn’t pause for full songs. Cinematically, that’s a good call. It does leave us wondering whether, 50 years from now, the art of this new generation will be held up by a new one.

In any case, it all helps confirm that the path these artists have chosen is hard travelin’. While anyone with a message presumably wants to reach as many people as possible, Renegade Dreamers tacitly argues that art cannot be measured solely by popularity.

Just the act of doing it, Kramer’s artists repeatedly declare, is the achievement. Being on the street singing about Wall Street, or women, or inequality, or whatever, puts it on the record that there are people who notice and care.

Kramer reinforces that point with clips from the Washington Square “folk riot” of 1960, in which the police and the city attempted to ban a regular Sunday afternoon folksong gathering in the park.

The ban ultimately proved unenforceable, as did attempts to shut down several “Beatnik” coffeehouses.

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Coffeehouse defenders on the street, ca. 1960.

In photos and film from the protests, it’s clear that any celebrity element was almost incidental. These crowds weren’t drawn to see Dylan or Ginsberg. The resistors were a whole lot of people who were never famous or popular, whose names you never heard, but who just believed we need places where music can be heard.

And they won.

Kramer tells us those voices are still being heard today, even if they don’t get much media attention. The volume may be lower, our attention may have been commandeered by a hundred other shiny objects, but it’s there, she says. If the circle is less visible, it’s unbroken.

(Renegade Dreamers begins a one-week run Friday at Cinema Village in New York.)

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