Movie Review: Summer of Soul

For the vast majority of Baby Boomers and perhaps a few Gen-Xers as well, if you ask them to word associate “music concert” and “1969”, they will invariably say “Woodstock”. And why not? The three-day festival of peace and music that took place on Max Yazgur’s farm in upstate New York has been immortalized in film, music, a flavour of ice cream and even a one-line quip. (“If you remember Woodstock, you weren’t there.”) The eponymous song, written and first recorded by Joni Mitchell, who herself wasn’t there, but made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, has been covered numerous times over the years by such groups and individuals as Matthews Southern Comfort, James Taylor, Jack DeJohnette and John Legend. But another musical festival took place in New York that summer that far fewer people today know about. Dubbed the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the concert series ran over six weekends from June to August at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in the famed New York City district.

The new documentary, SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED), by first-time filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, revisits those free concerts that drew a combined 300,000 people. If you’ve never heard of this landmark event that celebrated African American music and culture, welcome to the club. Hosted and promoted by New York night club singer Tony Lawrence, the concerts were filmed by Hal Tulchin, who was known in TV production circles at the time as a director of live commercials. Tulchin recorded 40 hours of footage on videotape, hoping to sell it to either the TV networks or Hollywood but neither showed any interest in having the concerts reach a mainstream and, let’s be honest, predominantly white, audience. However, contrary to what the film’s title says, New York’s WNEW-TV Metromedia Channel 5 (now WNYW) did broadcast hour-long specials of the footage on Saturday evenings at 10:30 PM that summer. For the most part, though, few people outside of New York City knew about the concerts, and the tapes ended up sitting in a basement for 50 years… until now.

Thompson, who is the drummer and leader of THE TONIGHT SHOW’s house band, The Roots, does such a stellar job with Tulchin’s footage that it’s hard to believe this is his first film. SUMMER OF SOUL puts audiences right in the crowd, moving and grooving to the sounds and beats of such music legends as Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Staple Singers, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, B. B. King, The Chambers Brothers, Herbie Mann, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masakela, David Ruffin and a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder. If and when the soundtrack becomes available, you’ll want to buy a copy after watching this film. (Someone on Spotify has created a 7-hour and growing compilation of the music from the concert series. Look for “Summer Of Soul Soundtrack & more from the Harlem Cultural Festival 1969”.)

In addition to the musical performances, Thompson sprinkles his film with interviews from some of the people who were there at the time, both in the audience and on stage. One scene with Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (of The 5th Dimension) has them watching, probably for the first time, the footage of themselves performing on June 29th. Interestingly, though this isn’t mentioned in the film, at the time, McCoo and Davis were just days away from getting married.

SUMMER OF SOUL is more than just a documentary about a bunch of concerts though. It’s also an examination of the development of black identity in the US in the wake of the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the rise of the Black Panther Movement. Perhaps for the first time, there was pride in being black, which is evident in the number of people in the audience who were wearing multicoloured dashikis or head wraps.

The film had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in January where it took home the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award. It was released in cinemas in the US in June and is currently available on Hulu as well. In the UK and Ireland, it’s available on Disney+.

SUMMER OF SOUL is easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. If you can find it where you live, definitely check it out!

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