Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Time Out says
The Roots frontman Questlove digs into the crates of music history for this essential doc about a forgotten festival
Bubbling under – and sometimes over – the surface of Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s intoxicating documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival are questions that are as much about the present as the past: why are we only celebrating this landmark event now? Why do we know so much, on the back of a bestselling album, a well-known film and endless storied anecdotes, about the ‘brown acid’ that was doing the rounds at Woodstock 100 miles upstate that summer, and yet so little about this powerful – and empowering – gathering dedicated to Black power and pride in the middle of New York City? (Also, in the time of Covid, a more trivial question itches the mind: when will I have the chance to experience live music as goddamn great as this again?)
The festival was a series of free gigs in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (since renamed Marcus Garvey Park), and just look at the line-up that attracted around 300,000 almost entirely Black New Yorkers over the summer: Stevie Wonder, BB King, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Sly Stone…
The ample footage that Thompson now presents to us, cut with new interviews with performers and attendees, shows that this was so much more than ‘just’ a music festival. As Jesse Jackson recalls so powerfully from the stage, it was little over a year since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the twilight summer of a decade that had seen extraordinary progress in the Black Civil Rights movement and an explosion of ideas and action around Black power, pride and consciousness – but also a decade of vicious conservative opposition and violence.
For many, if not most, of those in the crowd, fear of bloodshed, violence and death was no theoretical concept. It was a day-to-day reality. All of that was wrapped up in these gigs. And, as Thompson knows, experiencing them again in 2021 inevitably raises more crucial questions: What’s changed? And, critically, what hasn’t and still needs to?
Make no mistake, though: this isn’t all heavy. Partly this is a killer concert film; a series of powerful gigs finally given their due. Thompson also deftly draws the story into the present via his interviewees, many of whom we see watching footage of the concerts, and their reactions – laughs, tears, wonder – raise the stakes for us too. Thompson also does a very smart job of wandering away from the gig footage and giving us side essays that don’t feel laboured, whether they’re on the context of Harlem, 1969, as a place and time; or the fact that the moon landings were happening that same summer; or the reclaiming of the word ‘Black’ in 1960s America; or just a chance for Hugh Masekela’s son, Sal, to give some background on his dad and the cultural conversation at the time between African-Americans and Black Africa.
Politics, music, fashion, history, religion – this is one of those super-smart cultural documentaries that has entry points from all sides, but one thing’s for sure: this magical, essential event is forgotten no more.