Unearthing a cultural sarcophagus of 1969 Black America, the dexterous directorial debut about 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is full of triumphal performances from some of the greatest musicians of that era and any other.
This is living hidden history that you need to hear and know, as Gladys Knight says in the documentary: “It wasn’t just about the music.”
Completed during the Covid-19 crisis, the nearly two-hour Summer of Soul moves through time and memory with sit-down interviews with people who were in the 300,000 strong crowd or up on-stage. Yet, like a previous Sundance opening night documentary, 2015’s What Happened Miss Simone? (which actually contains about 30-seconds of the 1969 footage), the brutal reality of how much of the oppression and discrimination of that time also handicaps Black America today comes home too.
A blow that is intensified by the pandemic that has left such mass gatherings almost as distant a memory as the summer long Harlem Cultural Festival of half a century ago.
In that, one finds the true backbeat of the film and the deft weaving that perhaps only The Roots drummer and musicologist Thompson could be bring to the gig.
Thankfully employing a mere smattering of aesthetic tropes and primarily drilling into the material and its legacy, Thompson displays a steel drum confidence with the subject matter and mood. A sure handedness that his depth of experience as musician and music historian delivers regardless of the absence of a long career behind the camera – or perhaps in spite of it.
From almost forgotten footage that literally sat in a basement for decades, U.S. Documentary Competition category contender Summer of Soul takes you inside this particular celebration of Black excellence and pride in the nation’s largest city. It also dives into the space between the notes to give voice to the battle against a punishing system and the well-honed application of cultural erasure. In the moment and in recollection, the film melds both festivity and fervor with regal poise when a crowd capturing Nina Simone hits the stage to conjure up a rendition of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”
On one level, Summer of Soul feels like a mixtape of 1972’s Wattstax, 2005’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (which had Questlove and The Roots on-stage in Brooklyn) and The Tonight Show house band’s 2008 originating Annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia. Yet the fact is, running on weekends between June 29 – August 24, 1969 in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, the extravaganza some later called “Black Woodstock” pre-dated all those imitators and actually kicked off before the much more famous Woodstock itself that uneasy summer.
In fact, Sly and the Family Stone performed double duty that summer with stints at both the Harlem Cultural Festival and the August 15-18 shindig on a dairy farm in upstate New York. With Sly himself cajoling the NYC crowd to stop trying to be so cool and get into the groove, the racially and gender integrated genre busting band put on a show in Summer of Soul that makes their much-acclaimed early morning Woodstock appearance look like a rehearsal.
The Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Nina Simone aren’t the only ones to throw down showstoppers in Summer of Soul.
With the footage thankfully avoiding the extreme close-ups that characterize filmed concerts of the time, Stevie Wonder (with a stretch behind the drum kit right off the jump), Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and South Africa’s Hugh Masekela are all sharply on point. The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, percussionist extraordinaire Ray Barretto, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr and jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, among others, are all present in all their glory too. A moment of true transcendence occurs when Mahalia Jackson calls Mavis Staples of the Staples Sisters to join her in a rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” that could convert almost any atheist to the faith in its beauty.
Taking place around a year after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was killed and as Neil Armstrong is about to step on the Moon, there is also a very present political presence with the likes of Jesse Jackson on stage and the Black Panthers providing security for the partially civic funded festival.
In the hard realities of capitalism and racism, the efforts of hustling TV producer Hal Tulchin to find a home for the hours of footage he had shot of the Harlem Cultural Festival went nowhere fast. Despite being shown in bits on local TV in the summer of ’69, within a few short years, the festival itself and its stellar line-up had become as old news as NASA’s soon to be shuttered Apollo project.
If you are willing to accept that history is written by victors, so the Churchillian expression goes. Then you also must concede that history is reevaluated and revealed by the persistent. And, to paraphrase another well-quoted slice of verse, the Harlem Cultural Festival will not now go quietly into the good night.
Which, in this context, is another way of saying, if at least a streamer or two aren’t already putting together a strong bid on the Summer of Soul after tonight’s recently concluded online Sundance screening, they need to get more broadband, on every level.
Perhaps the best block party any of us have had or are going to get for months, Summer of Soul is a movie for right now in both speaking to the toxicity of American racism and dancing to the power of endurance. Or as Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” says: “sound is there to help you groove.”
Summer of Soul is produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel with Radical Media, Vulcan Productions, Concordia Studio, Play/Action Pictures, LarryBilly Productions, Mass Distraction Media.
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