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Summer of Soul (… or when the revolution couldn’t be televised)
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Since its release earlier this summer, Summer of Soul has been named “one of the best films of the year” and “one of the best concert films of all time”. Directed by musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, it records the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free outdoor concerts that took place in the summer of 1969 at Mount Morris Park, now known as Marcus Garvey Park, on 5th Avenue between 120th and 5th Avenue 124th Street took place in Uptown Manhattan. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the US Documentary Competition Audience Prize. It followed a limited theatrical release in June and it’s currently available for streaming on Hulu.
The Harlem Cultural Festival is often referred to as “The Black Woodstock”; but that does him no favors and diminishes its importance in comparison. Woodstock was commercially oriented, playing three days in August ’69, with the crème de la crème of rock counterculture, their artists and their audiences predominantly white. The> Harlem Cultural Festival lasted most of the summer, drawing on all black musical expression with stars from Motown, blues singers, gospel choirs, jazz musicians and psychedelic soul. The audience was black and from several generations. Harlem native Musa Jackson was 4 years old when he attended the concerts and paints a picture of them which is both a church picnic and a pop concert.
Black America was at a crossroads in the late 1960s. White America’s violent response to the civil rights movement included church bombings and political assassinations, while the Vietnam War and growing heroin epidemic took its toll on black communities across the country. Amid calls for self-defense and self-determination, a new sense of black pride took root that refused to water down for mainstream (i.e. white) acceptance. “’69 was the pivotal year when the Negro died and Black was born,” says Reverand Al Sharpton.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of Tony Lawrence, a singer and promoter who flatters politicians and performers alike at home. The 1968 riots were fresh in the minds of authorities, but Lawrence secured the support of then-Mayor John Lindsay and sponsorship of Maxwell House Coffee. Local Black Panthers Chapters helped with security and the concerts took place on 6 consecutive weekends, from June 24th to August 25th, 1969.
Much of the live footage shown in the film is mind boggling. Highlights include BB King and The Fifth Dimension, which sound funkier than you’ve ever heard, former Temptations singer David Ruffin in a performance that suggests one of the greatest careers in R&B, Stevie Wonder with his triple threat virtuosity Vocals, keyboards and drums and Sly & The Family Stone bring Haight-Ashbury to Harlem and literally make the crowd scream for more. The strongest moment is when Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson Dr. Pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and perform his favorite gospel song. It will move you to tears.
Embedded in the performances are interviews with journalists, activists and those who attended the concerts and performed there. Unfortunately, these interviews are often cut to the middle of the performance or the tone of their conversations is placed above the music bed. While their insights give greater context to the importance of the Harlem Cultural Festival, they also undermine the film’s greatest asset; the music. When a voice-over appears in the middle of Nina Simone’s glowing “backlash blues”, it’s almost too much to bear. We don’t need anyone to explain their greatness to us at this moment, their brilliant musicality, unwavering intelligence and teeming political consciousness are right in front of us.
After the release of Summer of Soul and its ecstatic recording, some have had issues with the movie’s subtitle (… or when the revolution couldn’t be televised) and the claim that the footage was lost for 50 years. The footage of the concerts was literally televised and aired on the network in the summer of 1969, and there have been plans since the early 2000s to make a documentary about the festival, as described on the Book & Film Globe website.
Ultimately, however, this criticism appears petty. While the subtitle may be over the top, everything is fine when it comes to hype, and it’s a historical fact that black music and culture has been consistently neglected, misrepresented, and undervalued in the mainstream media and in this country as a whole. When producer and director Hal Tulchin bought the footage in the early 1970s to make a full-length concert film, nobody bit. Whether it languished for 30 or 50 years is pedantic.
Summer of Soul is an extraordinary film that captures a little-known event of great cultural importance for posterity and is certainly one of the best musical documentaries of recent times. It’s also a frustrating viewing experience between a concert film and a documentary about a time and place. The latter is more successful than the former. Perhaps this is the result of Questlove’s impossible task; Turning 40 hours of footage into a two-hour film. In an interview with Pitchfork, he says his first cut of the film took three and a half hours. It should be noted that the 1970 film Woodstock lasts around three hours. As I watched Summer of Soul, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would have been if Questlove had been given a similar duration and the opportunity to fulfill its original vision. Hopefully more footage from these concerts will be released in the future.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.
Stream Summer of Soul on Hulu