Director: Questlove | 1h 58mins | Documentary, Music
During the Summer of ‘69, Icons and musicians joined together for a 6 week festival called The Harlem Cultural Festival. Over 350,000 people attended, but the history books seem to have forgotten about one of the most monumental festivals of all time.
Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King and Stevie Wonder – just some of the names that headlined The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 on Mount Morris Park in Harlem, set on the backdrop of an America at the height of Civil Right tensions. For some unknown reason – as the documentary so shockingly states at the beginning of the film – the footage of this star-studded festival was left collecting dust in the basement for 50 years before being turned into Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
It’s shocking enough that it’s only now we get to see the footage – not to mention the fact that this festival was free – but considering the tectonic cultural shift that was happening in America at time it speaks volumes about how unready America was to accept Black Culture. The Director, Questlove, doesn’t just use the footage to rejoice in the vibrancy of 60’s Harlem, he uses it wonderfully to find the real meaning in the festival through both iconic stage performances and interviews with a select few people who managed to witness the event.
This is neither a concert movie nor is it a traditional doc, splicing lengthy performances with a real thematic backdrop, Questlove manages to find the best from both styles. The foot-tapping, head-nodding joy of watching some of the most legendary artists in history perform is where you feel joy but it’s the cultural context that makes the film so great. We don’t just watch Nina Simone, we are watching Nina Simone rage and command a need for change. Sly is the foundation of the anti-conformist Black artist of the time and there is an entire chunk of the film dedicated to the important correlation between Gospel music and the Civil Rights Movement (watch Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples perform “Take My Hand Precious Lord” is an incredibly moving scene). The film would work solely as a concert film, but the doc isn’t afraid to find true meaning in the festival’s existence.
A number of people who were lucky enough to be at the festival commentate their own memories of the event, some getting emotional as they watch the footage for the first ever time, like a hole in their memory is slowly closing with every frame. The here-and-now interviews are incredibly important to making the event feel monumental, the power of human recollection is that it’s often exaggerated (whether it be slightly or extremely) but the way these people talk about the festival and it’s stars, spliced with the original footage, give the historic event even more grandeur than it already has – hitting home every thematic point that the film is trying to make.
The instant Summer of Soul starts it oozes style. The time, place, atmosphere and people created something culturally monumental in 1969 and if it wasn’t for America’s constant dismissal of Black Culture (and the fact Woodstock was happening at the same time) we would have seen this footage far sooner that 2021. We can rejoice in the fact that Summer of Soul is the perfect mesh of Concert film and Documentary – harnessing the spirit of the musicians performances while giving it cultural context – making the Documentary just as relevant as the festival itself.