In the summer of 1969, the same summer as Woodstock, some of the greatest musical acts of the time such as Stevie Wonder, BB King, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and The Fifth Dimension performed at Mount Morris Park in New York.
Woodstock was immortalized. Forget the Harlem Cultural Festival. But the event is put in a new light in the indispensable documentary “Summer of Soul (… or if the revolution couldn’t be televised)”.
Over the six weekends of the course, around 300,000 people passed what is now Marcus Garvey Park to see the names of the marquees on the program, with the Black Panthers ensuring safety. Developed by a born promoter, Tony Lawrence, the free summer concert series was sponsored by Maxwell Coffee and featured on the local news. General Foods even had the foresight of hiring someone to film the festival and hired television veteran Hal Tulchin to do it. Money was so tight that they are facing west on the stage to save light.
In the end, Tulchin, who died in 2017, had amassed around 40 hours of footage from the performances, the huge crowds, the political speeches, and the comedy acts. After several failed attempts to sell it or do something with it, even with its new nickname “Black Woodstock” it stood largely unseen in a basement for five decades – that is, until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson dusted it off and made it out of it It’s a tough contender for best documentary of the year.
In “Summer of Soul” Questlove achieves an extraordinary feat of turning these endless hours of film material not only into an exciting concert film, but also into an elegant and essential historical document of a particularly exciting and powerful moment in history. It is sometimes solemn, sometimes critical, and never less than extremely engaging. And while it’s Questlove’s first film, you’d never know.
It is extraordinary how much information and music are packed into these two hours. The film explores the various musical styles of the present day, the development of some artists such as Stevie Wonder and David Ruffin, the diversity of Harlem itself, the Puerto Rican influence (with commentary from Lin-Manuel Miranda), the divisions in the community (including an emotional one Marilyn McCoo, who speaks about the criticism that the Fifth Dimension has a “white sound” and the local and national socio-political context, and somehow nothing feels like it is being neglected.
Questlove and Editor Joshua L. Pearson also know when to perform at their best, rather than just clips, for the ultimate impact. It’s not for nothing that Nina Simone and “Backlash Blues” are saved at the end.
And while the performances are captivating – the standout ones include Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples belting out “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and the Edwin Hawkins Singers “O Happy Day” – it is the recordings of audiences of all ages that win them over Let film emerge alive, with the lively fashion, the incredible faces, the excitement, the boredom and the humanity that is packed into every frame.
The question of why this groundbreaking event could be so unknown hangs over every frame. There’s an answer at the very end, but be warned: it’s not a satisfactory one. If there is a dispute on “Summer of Soul”, it is that this was no longer questioned. But the film may be wiser not to delve into that fact. Instead, it corrects the wrong and gives this festival its long overdue moment in the sun.
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