It is June 29, 1969, and the 5th dimension is taking the stage at Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park). The Los Angeles group are already stars thanks to hits like Up, Up and Away and Aquarius from the musical Hair, which topped the Billboard charts this spring. But her pop-oriented repertoire, often written by white songwriters, has kept her away from US R&B radio stations and thus from black audiences. “We tried to get rid of the segregation in our society, but we were still caught up in it all,” the group’s founding singer, Billy Davis Jr, recalls today. “And the average black family didn’t make enough to visit us at the nightclubs we played. They had seen us on TV, but they had never seen us live. “
That should change with their headlining appearance on the opening day of the Harlem Culture Festival. The festival, a series of six Sunday concerts this summer, presented the best of soul, gospel, blues and jazz artists of the era in front of 300,000 spectators, many of them from the surrounding neighborhoods. “I looked out and saw a sea of faces and their response was so loving, so welcoming and exciting,” said Marilyn McCoo, wife and bandmate of Davis Jr., for whom the festival remains a treasured memory. She is not alone. Harlemite Musa Jackson, then just five years old, still remembers how the orange 5th dimension costumes that shimmered in the sun made them look “like creamsicles”.
The stage was positioned to make the most of the natural light to help veteran television producer Hal Tulchin, who was filming the event with a small crew. Tulchin hoped to produce a concert film modeled on DA Pennebaker’s acclaimed Chronicle of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. But despite gripping appearances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone and many others, he was unable to secure funding and after two broadcasts of highlights on local television, his valuable film material was stored for decades. The Woodstock Festival – also held that summer, 100 miles across the state – became a cultural phenomenon, while the Harlem Cultural Festival quietly faded into history. “The concert changed my life from black and white to color,” recalls Musa Jackson in Summer of Soul, a new documentary about the festival. “But then the concert was forgotten.”
Summer of Soul saves this historic event from oblivion and is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, universal band leader and drummer of the Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots. Addressed by producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein – who negotiated the rights to the footage in Tulchin’s basement shortly before the filmmaker’s death in 2017 – Thompson consulted his outstanding Rolodex and phoned Ernest Dickerson, Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. “I thought to myself, if I can produce someone else’s record, write a book, or teach in school, then I can direct a film. That was my chance to correct the story. “
Thompson’s first instinct was to construct a simple concert film. “Amazing Grace [Sydney Pollack’s long-delayed movie of a 1972 Aretha Franklin gospel concert] had just been published and he was showing you this performance out of context because he wanted to keep you in this church. So I wanted to keep the audience in this park in Harlem first. But I had so many burning questions about the festival. So we threw in a little narrative here and there, and our interviewees began to open doors to more stories that we wanted to explore. My first draft took three hours and 25 minutes. “
Thompson has cut his film to just under an hour and 57 minutes. But Summer of Soul not only belatedly sees the light of day some unforgettable performances, it also skilfully explores how music and politics intersect and where Black America stood at this powerful, steep moment. The United States was still wavering from the violence of the past few years, not least the killings of Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. “On the night of the murder of Dr. King burned down every American city in 1968, ”says Thompson. except Boston because James Brown appeared that night and his show was televised. So people stayed home. The Harlem Cultural Festival was organized to prevent this violence from recurring; To save Harlem from burning. For example: “Let’s keep people busy all summer. Hopefully we can get through this. ‘ And it worked.”
“1969 was one of the film’s co-stars …” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Photo: Matt Licari / Invision / AP
But as the festival cooled simmering tensions, the documentary tells of a country in upheaval and a black America that asserts its pride and refuses to give way in its pursuit of equality. The tensions of the era appear in the performances in different but equally powerful ways in the optimistic but straightforward hymns of Sly & the Family Stone, the beautiful cacophony of jazz musicians Sonny Sharrock and Max Roach or the spiritual nourishment of gospel stars Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers (“Gospel was therapy for the stress of being black in America,” notes Al Sharpton, one of the frugal speakers for the film).
“[The year] 1969 was one of the film’s co-stars, ”says Thompson of the moment the themes of his film play against. “It was a paradigm shift – a new generation came into play. The civil rights generation did the preparatory work, but for them it was more about self-sacrifice, like: ‘Even if I have to die, I do it so that my grandchildren have a future.’ But the younger generation was more on the side of the Black Panthers: “We don’t have to die; we want the fruits of our labor and demand respect. ‘”
This generation change is a theme throughout the Summer of Soul. Tulchin kept a camera pointed at the audience, and Thompson’s use of this footage captures elderly Harlemites dressed as if they were going to church and younger visitors in the more daring fashions of the day, in sharp contrast to the hippie long haired people who populated the Monterey Pop and Woodstock films. “It’s now mid-August, it’s 100 degrees outside, and David Ruffin is singing in a woolen tuxedo, his coat buttoned to the top,” laughs Thompson at the former Temptation’s solo debut. “His generation was taught, ‘You have to be professional. You must wear your tuxedo even if you are uncomfortable. ‘ And then Sly & the Family Stone come out in street clothes, and it’s revolutionary, as if the black audience has never seen artists in jeans on stage and sang. “
A more profound handover of the baton occurs when revered gospel legend Mahalia Jackson – who was defeated at the performance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord – hands the microphone to young Mavis Staples to end the song. Thompson originally planned this powerful sequence as well as footage of Jackson’s We Shall Overcome appearances as the climax of the film. But the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against Black Lives Matter led producer Joseph Patel to ask Thompson, “Have we overcome?”
The crowd at the festival. Photo: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
“It was a ‘Kumbaya’ moment, a perfect ‘Hollywood’ ending,” says Thompson of the handover of Mahalia / Mavis. “But we wanted to shake people up.” Instead, the film ends with electrifying shots of Simone composing the black nationalist poem Are You Ready? recited. by David Nelson of The Last Poets, asking the audience, “Are you ready to kill if necessary? Are you ready to smash white things? “
Thompson is still frustrated that Tulchin couldn’t make his film half a century ago. “What actually made Woodstock legendary wasn’t the festival itself, but the film that followed, which carefully edited and presented the festival and changed people’s lives. If 1% of the things that happened in Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival – people breaking the gates, rampant drug use – you would definitely have heard of it. It would have been Altamont before Altamont. But nothing happened, so it was forgotten. Prince said it was his father who brought him to Woodstock at 11 when he was 11 that made him pursue his mission on this planet. Can you imagine how many other children would have had similar revelations if they had seen this footage that day? “
Aside from such missed opportunities, Thompson sees the disappearance of the Harlem Culture Festival as yet another destructive example of blacks’ annihilation. “Joy is an element that is too often lost in the Black America narrative,” he says. “You see the bloodshed, the pain, the tears and the struggle – you learn that we have been caught, bitten by dogs and shot. But Black Joy is a legitimate entry in our history. This is where our creativity comes from, our Afros, our fashion and our music. It is important to show joy to black too. “
BB King performs at the festival. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Making his directorial debut, a widely acclaimed triumph, Thompson said he “liked the experience enough to make more films.” After Davis Jr. and McCoo avoided political material in the 1960s because they believed their job was to “entertain people and rid them of tragedy,” Davis Jr. and McCoo have just completed Blackbird, their first Studio project for more than four decades. It’s a Lennon and McCartney cover album with a political theme because, according to McCoo, “we, like the young people protesting, have a strong feeling that we are in such a difficult time.”
As for the rest of Tulchin’s footage, there are no set plans. But Fyvolent promises: “It won’t be in the basement for another 50 years. We’ll do our best to get more out of it. “
Summer of Soul (… or if the Revolution couldn’t be televised) hits theaters on July 16 and on Star on Disney + on July 30.
This article was updated on July 16 to indicate that David Dinerstein also negotiated the rights to the concert recordings.