It’s time to get funky. Gemma Creagh reviews Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a powerful documentary about a nearly-forgotten festival.
In the summer of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place over a series of weekends in Mount Morris Park, Manhattan. This glorious event was a celebration of African American fashion, food, comedy, culture and, above all, music. Some of the most trendsetting and iconic Funk, Soul, Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Pop, Motown and Blues musicians took to the stage for these free open air concerts, which were attended by over 300,000 people. While that same summer, Woodstock happened only 100 miles away.
After fifty years, Summer of Soul restores and compiles the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival into a genuinely powerful piece of cinema, echoing the festival’s roots in activism. This event was founded and promoted by New York nightclub singer Tony Lawrence, and recorded by producer Hal Tulchin. However when it came time to sell the footage, they soon found that there was no market for what was dubbed as the “Black Woodstock.” As a result, this incredible recording lay idle for half a century, and, until this film, remained relatively unknown.
This was an era fuelled by civil unrest. Unprecedented numbers of the Black community were dying in Vietnam. Black men were being attacked and murdered by police on the streets. With the community mourning the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jnr, Bobby Kennedy – there was a deep desire for change. During the course of the festival, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and when vox popped by smirking, white news anchors, the attendees echoed the same sentiment: why waste so much money, when so many in the US are living in abject poverty?
A balanced blend of personal stories, history, politics and music, Summer of Soul covers still relevant and important themes, which are presented as a series of vignettes – one attendee talks about her experience being the first student in a university after segregation was abolished, another gives a visceral account of the smells of the home cooked food on offer. The original recordings of the performances are interspersed with an impressive array of talking heads as well as present day insights from well-known artists and activists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Sharpton and Chris Rock.
In front of an audience of youths, of grandmothers, of families, these speakers and musicians perform with pain and passion. David Ruffin delivers an energetic performance of “My Girl”, The 5th Dimension sway in bright yellow to their upbeat songs, Pops Staples sings with folksy charm, Jesse Jackson delivers a rousing call-to-action, Nina Simone’s soulful ballad moves the audience to tears, and Pentecostal gospel singers joyously profess their faith, each in some way capturing the black experience as well as the mood across the United States.
As a performer, debut director Ahmir Khalib Thompson, AKA Questlove, has an intuitive feel for the edit. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, all own the stage, and when it comes to the music, Thompson is not afraid to linger on these moments, allowing us time to sit with the powerful, emotive vocals, the energy of the delivery, and the affected reactions of the crowd. Although he’s starred in and composed for a wealth of films and TV shows over the past two decades, as well as producing on occasion, Thompson, is best known as a drummer in the Roots. Having one foot rooted in media and the other in song, with Summer of Soul he proves himself to be an accomplished storyteller across both fields.
There’s something quite jarring about looking back on this footage from the vantage point of 2021. Through this grainy, brightly-graded TV footage, we watch the hopeful faces of young activists fighting for their civil rights. Yet in the subsequent fifty years, how much has really changed? Those same streets last summer were filled with protesters being tear gassed, advocating for their community members to not to get murdered by police. In a time where young black football players get death threats for missing a penalty, where world leaders openly engage in racist dog-whistling, Summer of Soul is the inspiring reclaiming of black history, that healing celebration of accomplishment, that we all need right now.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is released in cinemas on the 16th July 2021 and on VOD on the 30th July 2021.