Appellate Judge James A. Stewart sings for his DVDs.
"Until now, revolutions have been filled with destruction, burning, killing, and hate, but we started our revolution with a smile and a song."—Heinz Valk
Estonia was enjoying its second decade of freedom when the Soviets invaded in 1939. With Nazi occupation and Soviet reannexation to follow, the small Baltic nation wouldn't see independence again until the 1990s.
There was one way to keep that desire for freedom alive: through music. Estonia is home to Laulupidu, a song festival founded in 1869 that first gave rise to liberty's lyrics through Gustav Ernesaks' new arrangement of "Mu isamaa on minu arm" ("Land of my Fathers, Land that I Love"), a song that became Estonia's "unofficial national anthem" in 1947. That voice of freedom, from early protests to the Soviet Union's final days, is the subject of The Singing Revolution.
The Soviets intended 1947's song festival to be a propaganda showcase, but a new patriotic song in Estonian was slipped into the program. By the hundredth anniversary of Laulupidu in 1969, the Soviets were wise to this and tried to stop the song, but they failed.
While a song kept alive the spirit of protest, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who promised a new era of free speech and openness, prompting Estonians to test his word. A successful protest of strip mining led to more rallies. Soon a concert that drew around a hundred thousand turned into a protest and moved to the Laulupidu grounds, and the Estonian movement—or movements, since there were three separate factions—became known as "the Singing Revolution."
From there, renegade Estonian lawmakers, a six hundred kilometer human chain, and a vote for an alternative government were among the events which confronted Gorbachev and his government until it fell.
The Singing Revolution lets us see and hear many of the events through period footage. That isn't great for picture quality, obviously, but it gives the documentary an urgent feel, as if viewers were there on the scene. What fascinated me the most was the persistence of the Estonians, who appeared to be keeping a steady pressure on Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was slowly falling apart. Linda Hunt narrates, a low-key voice guiding the viewer with background information and, along with subtitles, translations of interviews.
I viewed The Singing Revolution with a screener copy, with "PREVIEW COPY: Not for duplication or private screenings" appearing periodically on the screen, usually during crowd shots; I'm not sure how represenative my copy was, but I didn't see any problems with it.
Even though I read the news reports way back in the early 1990s, I wished The Singing Revolution had shown more of what was happening across the crumbling Soviet Union during the same time frame. Extras with more on this would have been helpful. A complete performance of the song—and other related protest songs—would have been good, too, although I realize the song was only the start of the revolution, not the revolution itself. You can find out more about the songs at the movie's official site, though.
While there are some scenes of singing crowds that are simply beautiful, The Singing Revolution doesn't flinch from graphic scenes of bodies lying on the ground. The Estonian revolution at the end of Soviet rule was peaceful, but the initial Soviet invasion in 1939 was bloody.
At this writing, the movie's available only through the official site, although Amazon.com will be offering it early in 2009. I'd recommend keeping an eye out for screenings; several are listed at the official site.
I'm glad The Singing Revolution keeps alive the experiences of the
Estonians as the "unofficial national anthem" did during Soviet rule.
It's well done, and I found it worth seeing. Not guilty.
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