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  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Summer of Soul (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 13


Featuring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr., Mavis Staples, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock, Sal Masakela, Sheila E., Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Denise Oliver-Velez and archival footage of Nina Simone, BB King, David Ruffin, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, The Pips, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Ray Barretto, The Chambers Brothers, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Tony Lawrence, Hal Tulchin, Jesse Jackson, John Lindsay, Redd Foxx and Sly & the Family Stone.

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Summer of Soul is an incredible treasure trove of lost musical performances. But there is more to it as well. It takes a deep dive into the historical and social ramifications of the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, or as it was called back then, the Black Woodstock.

The Cultural Festival was a series of free summer concerts held at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park). Many of the biggest names at the time in soul, jazz, blues and gospel played the festival, including Nina Simone, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Chuck Jackson, Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers and Moms Mabley.

The entire festival (which ran over several weeks that summer) was filmed by the documentarian Hal Tulchin, who hoped to sell it as a film a la the concurrently popular film Woodstock. Unfortunately, Tulchin was never able to sell the project and the film never came to be – although despite the subtitle of this new documentary on the festival Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised, apparently at least some of this footage was shown in a series of hour-long specials on local New York TV in the summer of 1969.

However, other than those one-time local showings, and a bit of the footage apparently leaking out (Summer of Soul director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots acknowledged that he first did see a bit of the Sly & the Family Stone performance at a Japanese Soul Train Cafe back in 1997), most of this footage has been lost to the ages. Or, more accurately, languished in a basement. Until now.

It was another 20 years before Questlove had the chance to see more of the footage. In fact, he was able to see all of it. And he has massaged it into one of the best documentaries in recent years.

Summer of Soul is not purely a musical documentary – although the music is always in the foreground. However, the movie looks at the shows through the lens of history. Yes, there are several stunning musical performances, but the documentary also looks at deep considerations such as how it was possible that such a massive festival with some of the biggest black acts in the world could be essentially forgotten.

The film also fits the show into the historical context of the times in one of the most momentous years in our history – for example one show was taking place as man first walked on the moon, and the country was reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X – all of which had happened in the years leading up to the shows.

The history and the interviews – with people who went to the show, some of the artists, and other involved with the festival – are all interesting, but the music clips are what make the film special. From an early rare look at Stevie Wonder playing drums, to scorching performances by the likes of BB King, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, The Staple Singers, Hugh Masekela and Sly and the Family Stone were mostly mesmerizing, young talent to burn. The crowd scenes were also fascinating, seeing normal 1969 families getting down to the music is never less than entertaining.

However, no matter how amazing this footage is, there isn’t enough. In a virtual press conference in which we took part last week, Questlove acknowledged that he was only able to use maybe 10-15% of the footage available of the shows. So, enjoy Summer of Soul, but also hope that even more of this incredible footage is released – maybe even entire sets of the different acts – both on video and as straight audio. This stuff has been hidden for way too long.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: July 1, 2021.


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