This is an absolutely tremendous film. If it was just a concert film alone it would be great. But it's much more than that, working on three levels. It begins with The Weavers reuniting for a family-and-friends picnic the year before, and it goes so well, that they start talking about maybe doing a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. (Following in the footsteps of their famous Carnegie Hall show in 1957.) And we see all the rehearsals as they try to figure out if it will work out. It's as fascinating and fun as the final concert itself. (And indeed they are in good voice.) And there is also a great deal on the history of The Weavers, putting this reunion and that final concert in important and emotional context. And then of course there's that concert.
By the way, when the reunion concert was announced for its one-night only performance, the ticket response was so immediate that they added a second concert.
As I wrote, if you don't know of The Weavers, they were a wildly popular folk music group in the 1950s whose outspoken support for labor issues and unions and such got them Blacklisted. They eventually split and went off to their own careers. Pete Seeger clearly had the most success, though the others -- Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays -- didn't fade away. Indeed, the documentary deals with all their post-Weaver careers. Hellerman became a successful record producer, Gilbert had a career stage acting, and Hays recorded four children's albums with a group The Babysitters, one member of whom was Alan Arkin.
I can't recommend Wasn't That a Time highly enough, most especially if you're a fan of The Weavers, but also if you like folk music. And honestly, even if you're not someone who listens much to folk music this is still a really wonderful documentary, period, about history, survival and triumph. I saw it in a theater when it was initially released and was boggled when it didn't get an Oscar nomination. I don't know if it didn't qualify for some reason, or if they missed deadlines or if not enough people simply liked it as much as I did -- or what? I truly don't think it's the "not enough people" reason, though. It subsequently was shown on PBS and was so popular that they now repeat it periodically during Pledge Drive time, and even spawned a sort of sequel, Isn't This a Time?, focusing on a tribute concerto to Harold Levanthal, the legendary manager of The Weavers and other folk artists. (And when I say legendary...there is no hyperbole involved. I mean it. He managed The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Theodore Bikel and Peter, Paul & Mary, and others. That's legendary.) So, why it wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, I have no idea. I've recommended it to many, and the response has pretty much consistently been, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!" It's available on Netflix, and probably Amazon Prime...so get it!
To give further credit, the director of the documentary is Jim Brown. He made that follow-up documentary I mentioned, Isn't This a Time? and also a documentary on Pete Seeger, The Power of Song, as well as a great documentary a year ago, 50 Years with Peter, Paul & Mary, all of which I believed aired on PBS.
A few things to mention. As I noted yesterday, there is one particularly fascinating contrast between the 1951 films and this documentary. When you watch the featurettes, the group's bass Lee Hays comes across as so wooden you swear he wishes he were anywhere else. But in the documentary, he's hilarious. He wrote the script to the film, provides the narration, and is the emcee of sorts at the reunion concert. It's a revelation to discover how hilarious he is. Sardonic humor, to be sure, but really funny. And I should add he was a prolific songwriter. Among the many songs he either wrote or co-wrote are "If I Had a Hammer," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and the title song of this documentary, "Wasn't That a Time
His appearance is also very touching, making his humor all the more moving. That's because as he makes clear, he had diabetes, and as a result had both of his legs amputated. He's in a wheelchair the whole film, and it's handled with great grace and high spirit. The affection all The Weavers have for one another is pronounced, but their affection for Lee Hays stands out. (Be sure to watch the faces of the other three as they listen to Hays talking with the audience -- not just filled with affection, but even surprised by some of his quips and breaking into laughs.)
For context in this clip, it's also important to know that the Carnegie Hall reunion concert took place in 1980, not terribly long after Ronald Reagan took office as president. There are references to this throughout the film that are clear, but not in this clip.
Also, what's fascinating is the applause and cheers of that reunion audience. It's like none I've heard. Loud, to be sure. But it is interlaced with affectionate passion, as everyone there completely understands the meaning of these four legends reuniting after having their careers and lives torn apart by the Blacklist. I almost love listening to this unique audience reaction as much as anything,
So, here's a clip -- but again, get the full documentary. This though at least will give a touch of how rich the concert portion of it is. And I'll have a few more clips.
But for starters, this is the opening song of that reunion.