In the new documentary, Streetlight Harmonies shines a spotlight on the origins of doo wop and its influence on the broader culture. By creating sophisticated harmonizing music, these groups crossed color barriers and created a legacy all of its own. Among the endless jukebox of melodies and memories, Harmonies shows how these performers found themselves in the centre of culture’s storm over segregation as they toured deep south towns, where Jim Crow was the law of the land. At a time when race divided he nation, courageous musicians, both white and black, contributed to concert desegregation and helped sway the public against Jim Crow by using the great common denominator of music to bring audiences together.
Directed by Brent Wilson, Streetlight Harmonies is a fascinating look at the development of one of the most influential musical brands in history. While some may discount the ‘frivolous’ nature of pop music, Harmonies points out that groundswell movements such as doo-wop gave voice to a generation that was trying to redefine itself during and after the events of World War II. Rooted in the communal expressions of gospel music, doo wop provided an opportunity for people to come together and give life to something beautiful. Using testimonials from a wide variety of vocal legends from Anthony Gourdine (Little Anthony and the Imperials), to Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Wilson’s film recognizes the power of vocal harmonies to bring joy and purity to those around, without the burden of instrumentation. As such, this was a style that could come from anyone, regardless of social status or race. In doing so, the birth of doo wop began to speak to (and through) a generation and began to show the cracks in racial segregation.
With this in mind, Harmonies also does an excellent job highlighting the incredible barriers faced through racial divides as well. Despite the fact that music’s catchy melodies sought to bring people together, cultural prejudices fought hard against the unifying sources. Thankfully, Harmonies is willing to explore these dark corners of history, shining light on issues such as the racial terrors experienced by artists in the south and the controversial covers of African-American artists by white musicians such as Pat Boone. In doing so, Harmonies recognizes the crucial role that musical forms such as doo wop, rock and roll and rhythm and blues played in helping to tear down the very walls that society had placed between people. There is a certain appropriation of soul (and I don’t mean the specific style) within vocal harmonies that points to a common spirituality in humanity. As a result, the film reveals a hope within the music that literally led to the tearing down of racial barriers and pointed to a new beginning for American culture.
Whereas there are some that may argue that music cannot change the world, Streetlight Harmonies proves otherwise. Through first-hand testimonials, Harmonies reveals that there is something at the very core of music that drives us towards community in the face of substantial cultural barriers. In other words, Streetlight Harmonies sings a melody that uniquely points to the power of music as a sign of hope in a darkened time.
Streetlight Harmonies rolled out onto VOD on March 31st, 2020