It’s tempting to lure you in with just the names involved. There can be no doubt if I mentioned that Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The Chambers Brothers, Herbie Mann, The 5th Dimension, Papa Staples and Staple Singers, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone are just a few of the performances you’ll see in Summer of Soul then your interest will be piqued enough to check it out.
But that’s not really the truth. Not the whole of it, anyway. Yes, you’ll definitely see performances from the above mentioned and so many more. And yes, Summer of Soul is probably worth it on that fact alone. But the truth, the whole truth, is much larger than any roster or lineup could ever convey. This is bigger than a mere concert film. This is an important artifact of both musical and black history that commands your attention and leaves you breathless.
The summer of 1969 sits heavily on the consciousness of America. It was the summer of Woodstock. The summer of the moon landing. It was a summer that capped the end of a decade of turmoil, struggle, violence, and change that forever altered the shape of the country. It was also the summer of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a weeks-long concert series that took place in Mount Morris Park.
Also known as “Black Woodstock,” the Harlem Cultural Festival has largely been forgotten in the wider pop cultural world. Not for lack of trying. The series was filmed for an intended release—similar to the Monterrey Pop Festival or Woodstock—but the footage remained largely unseen for 50 years. According to the film, it mostly stayed locked in a basement. Enter Questlove.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of The Roots, television personality, accomplished DJ, music producer, soundtrack producer, composer, is, as you can see, a man of many talents. We can now add director to his list of abilities, and it’s a more than worthy addition. Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a stunning work of documentary filmmaking, pop cultural anthropology, history, and, yes, concert film work.
It would have been more than easy to assemble the available footage into a traditional concert film. The entirety of the series was filmed as it happened by Hal Tulchin, and as we see in the film what exists is enough to make what would undoubtedly be one of the greatest concert films ever made. As much as I hope we one day get that film, what Questlove has done here is so much more.
Questlove weaves the concert, expertly and passionately curated and pieced together, with a contextual narrative that explores what made the festival not only unique but important. New York City had endured riots the year before owing to anger at the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Coupled with the growing rage at the slow pace of civil rights, there was an expectation that the summer of 1969 would erupt in similar violence.
Local singer Tony Lawrence, who put on the festival, had different ideas. While it could be said that the festival was an attempt to placate the masses—the ol’ bread and circuses routine—what Lawrence did was give the community not only something to look forward to but something to be proud of. Though sanctioned by the city, the Harlem Cultural Festival was largely a community driven and community realized affair designed to celebrate the people and love of Harlem.
Questlove celebrates all aspects of the festival in Summer of Soul. The music might be the star—the very thought of hearing Ruffin sing “My Girl” along with thousands of festival attendees gives me goosebumps—but it is not the driving force of the documentary. Rather, it’s our doorway into the conversation about black music, black pride, black love, and black excellence. It’s also a journey into history. That this footage sat unused for so long is another shame in a long series of shames that has so often—too often—buried the celebrations of black culture in America. The footage presented is an important cultural artifact in itself but add in the expertly devised historical contexts provided by Questlove and the whole thing reaches new heights of relevance.
For fans of music and history, Summer of Sam is an amazing work of both concert and documentary filmmaking. It’s also an awe-inspiring reminder of the power and importance of music to move, to unite, to uplift, and to inspire. With the expert and passionate curation of Questlove, Summer of Soul is a non-stop celebration of an important moment in black cultural history that demands to be seen.
Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now playing in theaters and on Hulu,