John Legend helps shine Sundance light on schools

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[January 26, 2010]  PARK CITY, Utah (AP) -- A convenient truth greeted John Legend when the singer contacted documentary director Davis Guggenheim about collaborating on a film to examine the nation's public-school system.

Legend had been working with the hip-hop group the Roots on an album exploring 1960s and '70s music, which led to a discussion about the civil-rights movement and then education, which he considers the civil-rights issue of our time.

The Grammy winner whose albums include "Evolver" and "Get Lifted" thought Guggenheim, an Academy Award winner for his global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," was just the man to look at what's wrong with America's public schools.

"We were going to meet with Davis to see if he wanted to direct it," Legend said. "When my manager met with him, he was like, `Uh, I'm already making this film. This film you're talking about, I'm already making it, and it'll be done in three months.'"

Legend, 31, eagerly agreed to sign on with Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," writing the song "Shine" for the closing credits of the documentary, which premiered over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The first time I heard it, I was like 'It's perfect,'" Guggenheim said. "When you hear the song, it just says everything about what we have to do for every kid in America. Give them a great potential and let them shine."

The film chronicles efforts by innovative educators to turn around failing systems in Washington, D.C., Harlem, Los Angeles and other places where many schools have come to be known as "dropout factories." Guggenheim studies the hindrances of conflicting state and federal regulations on schools and how tenure tracks and teachers unions affect administrators' power to get rid of bad instructors.

At the heart of the film are segments following a handful of promising students whose best hopes for a decent future rest in long-shot lotteries to determine which children will get to attend a choice alternative school.

"Shine" "was completely inspired from seeing the film and seeing the stories of the children in the film, because it follows these kids who have potential, have a certain desire to do well," Legend said. "They are in circumstances where they are surrounded by failing public schools, and they see the light, they see a few schools in their area that are succeeding. But you have to win a lottery to get into these schools. ...

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"When you think about someone's fate being decided by a lottery, the choice is usually ... `Am I going to end up at a school with a super-high dropout rate and end up like a lot of those kids who drop out, in the criminal-justice system, working a low-wage job, or am I going to get a good education and go to college and make something of myself?'"

"Waiting for Superman" has been picked up by Paramount Vantage for theatrical release. Legend hopes the film will be a call to action for public schools the way an "Inconvenient Truth" was for global warming.

The film also has the support of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who is interviewed in the documentary and came to Sundance to promote it.


Even with marquee names behind it, the film will take some nurturing to bring in audiences, Legend said.

"It's always challenging selling a documentary. I'm sure when people can go to see lighter fare, it's not always their first choice," Legend said. "But I feel that this film is really inspiring, it's really moving. It has all the things you want out of a good film. The drama and the suspense and the interesting characters that you want to follow. It also teaches you something important about what's going on in our country."


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[Associated Press; By DAVID GERMAIN]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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