Sharps and Flats

Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and others rework '60s classics for "Steal This Movie." But does Bob Dylan need updating?

By Seth Mnookin
Published August 2, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Over an insistent cowbell beat, actor Vincent D'Onofrio channels '60s activist Abbie Hoffman, preaching to the overeducated masses about how every prisoner in America is a political prisoner, how we all should go and visit prisons "rather than sitting in a fucking minimum-security jail, like NYU." Cue the crowd and the guitars, and in comes a set piece if there ever was one: the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today." The song would probably be a whole lot more effective if it wasn't one of those soundtrack staples that crop up anytime a director wants to foreshadow the dark underside of the '60s peace-and-love vibe. As it stands, it generates the same old blandly familiar feeling of hearing "White Rabbit" during a drug scene.

Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow cover the song here, and perhaps director Robert Greenwald thought that the new performance would inch the song away from cinematic clichi. If anyone can get away with singing lines like "Our souls've been psychedelicized," and "I might get burned up by the sun," set against knee-jerk snippets of dialogue ("I think we stand for the destruction of property") it's Earle, whose timeworn voice conveys a thick layer of grit with every syllable he utters. The same, alas, cannot be said for Sheryl Crow, whose ridiculous yelping and forced inflections are actually comical. Sadly, this is not a farce.

That's the problem with a lot of the "Steal This Movie" soundtrack, which pairs contemporary musicians with aging classics from Dylan, Country Joe & the Fish and others. Those '60s show horses don't age well, and when they're updated they tend to sound overly earnest and cloying. Bonnie Raitt is a hell of a musician, and a damn fine singer, but she sounds sorely out of her league trying to tweak Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Joan Osborne and Jackson Browne don't fare much better on "My Back Pages" -- "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Mary Chapin Carpenter is a hair better on her version of Donovan's "Mellow Yellow," but it's never more than mildly interesting.

Not even the intact period pieces -- Edwin Starr's "War" and Eric Burdon and Billy Preston's "Power to the People" -- can hold this effort together. Two Country Joe & the Fish songs work better, if only because they haven't been so played out; also, there's a feral intensity in hearing Joe McDonald snarl, "Send you back to Texas/Make you work on your ranch," about the then-president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

And then there's Ani DiFranco, who actually pulls off what must have been expected of the entire soundtrack. DiFranco does two songs here, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and Phil Ochs' "When I'm Gone." (Ochs himself performs "I Ain't Marching Anymore.") Set over a single, shimmering guitar, DiFranco wraps her voice, at once mellifluous and caustic, around these two old folk standards. Unlike Raitt, unlike Osborne and Browne, DiFranco makes these songs sound fresh and exciting. She gives them new life, a sense of continuity and shared legacy between Abbie Hoffman's heady '60s and today. Dragging herself across "When I'm Gone," it's hard not to get choked up. And when she sings about a sign warning that a swimming hole is "Private Property," she sounds angry and hopeful, bitter and wistful all at once.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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