Rate and review: ‘Summer of Soul’ unveils footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut “Summer of Soul (… Or, if the revolution couldn’t be televised)” brings to light astonishingly beautiful shots of a criminally overlooked festival with an undeniable historical impact.

For 50 years, 45 hours of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in New York lay in a basement and remained unseen by the public.

The festival took place from June 29th to August 24th, 1969. It hosted six free concerts in Mount Morris Park and together attracted nearly 300,000 visitors. Despite 27 appearances, including headliners like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone, the event stayed dark in pop culture history and was purposely dwarfed by simultaneous events like Woodstock and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In a breathtaking celebration of black music, fashion and culture, Summer of Soul gives the Harlem Cultural Festival the spotlight it deserves for more than half a century.

On January 28th, “Summer of Soul” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Five days later, it was announced that the documentary won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize in the non-fiction category. The film had a limited release date in the US on June 25 and was rolled out to theaters and Hulu a week later.

“Summer of Soul” currently has 99% of Rotten Tomatoes’ 160 critical reviews and is praised for its concise storytelling and the restoration of the footage.

When the film’s producer, Robert Fyvolent, became aware of the existence of the festival material, he acquired the film rights from its original producer, Hal Tulchin.

In an interview with IndieWire, Questlove expressed that he was driven to make the film because of the neglect of the footage and the personal impact music has on his life.

“What would have happened if he had allowed a seat at the table?” said Questlove. “How much difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment when all doubts were dispelled that I could do it. “

Questlove’s film sheds light on Harlem culture at a time when the US lived through a decade of racism, violence, war and political turmoil. The documentary does an excellent job examining how the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert F. Kennedy impacted the black community. In a time of extreme need, music became catharsis for many.

The film also features a number of insightful guest speakers, including festival participants and performers, but also big names like Chris Rock, Sheila Escovedo, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father Luis Miranda.

From these interviews, “Summer of Soul” succeeds in really highlighting the importance of the festival and at the same time delving into how it has been lost in history for so long.

As many of the guest speakers pointed out towards the end of the documentary, the erasing of black history in America is far from unusual. With racism at an all-time high and the mostly white Woodstock Music Festival taking place just 100 miles away that same summer, it’s no an anomaly why the 1960s media diverted attention from the Harlem Cultural Festival.

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Although the festival received no recognition in its time, “Summer of Soul” effortlessly grabbed the audience’s attention and carried it off to the summer of ’69.

Clips show performers on a stage facing the sun in bell-bottoms, fringes, velvet and suits. Many children, young people and the elderly get lost in the music of some of the greatest artists of all time. As the film progresses, it’s hard to believe that videos with such stunning detail could ever be dismissed.

While the footage is perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the film, Summer of Soul would not be complete without reactions from cast members and visitors, whose faces grew in amazement as they replayed their memories. The laughter, gasp and tears of those who experienced the Harlem Cultural Festival firsthand let the audience feel how surreal the concerts really were.

Just as the Harlem Cultural Festival was more than just concerts, “Summer of Soul” is more than just a documentary; It’s a time capsule that contains an entire era of the New York Harlem community, and it is sure to sweep anyone who sees it to the heart.

Price: 10/10

Contact Brenna at bsheets@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @ BrennaMarieShe1.

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