Friday, June 16, 2017

Jean R. Freedman's "Peggy Seeger"

Jean R. Freedman is a folklorist and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Journal of American Folklore, and the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, among other publications. Her first book, Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London, analyzes popular culture and political ideology in London during World War II. She teaches at Montgomery College and George Washington University and lives in the Washington, DC area with her family.

Here, Freedman dreamcasts an adaptation of her recent biography, Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics:
Very few biographies are made into movies, which is odd, because documentaries about famous people and fictionalized “docu-dramas” are very popular. I think a biography could be a gift to a director: the biographer has written the story and done all the research, so the director can get down to the business of providing visual elements and sound. My book is the first full-length biography of an extraordinary woman, musician and activist Peggy Seeger. The title gives the three things that should be emphasized in the movie: music, love, and politics. Music should be both background and foreground. There should be scenes of Peggy singing and playing, and songs can also create mood, ease transitions between scenes, and indicate the time period in which the scenes take place. Since love and politics are two of the most exciting and dramatic things in life, the movie will focus on Peggy’s personal life intertwined with her political life. There should be elements of documentary, such as personal photographs, and perhaps newsreels of events that Peggy has written about: apartheid, the Vietnam War, the 1984-85 British miners’ strike, the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, and so forth. The viewer should leave the film singing and wanting to change the world, simultaneously.

The director should be an experienced political filmmaker who understands how to use music effectively. Top choices are Costa-Gavras and Gregory Nava. Without question, the mature Peggy should be played by Angela Lansbury. They have the same mannerisms, the same cheekbones, and the same precise manner of speaking, a legacy of having lived both in England and the United States. Lansbury is also an excellent singer. I’m not sure who should play the younger Peggy; the story could be told in retrospect and use footage of Peggy herself in her younger days. If the director does decide to cast a younger Peggy, it should be someone like Natalie Portman, pretty and intelligent-looking, with light brown hair. Peggy’s brother Pete should be played by a musician who has the same charisma and passion for social justice – Bruce Springsteen, perhaps, or Billy Bragg, if he can do an American accent. Casting her husband, Ewan MacColl, is surprisingly difficult, which is ironic because he was himself an actor. The person who plays Ewan will have to sing beautifully, speak with an English accent and occasionally a Scots accent, and look good in a beard. I suggest one of those actors who are such chameleons that you’ve seen them in three films before you realize you’ve watched the same person three times: people like Sean Penn, Eddie Redmayne, and Daniel Day-Lewis. As actors, they can do anything. But can any of them sing?
Visit Jean R. Freedman’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue