Summer of Soul (...or, when the revolution sould not be televised) Movie Review
Summer of Soul (...or, when the revolution sould not be televised) Movie Review Metadata
We will never not hear about Woodstock, the iconic 4-day festival of peace, love, and rock and roll in August of 1969, but you’ve never once heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival that occurred over that and many other weekends 100 miles away? Maybe because it wasn’t held at a family farm but in the heart of urban life, Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem. That’s the premise and promise of Summer of Soul (…or, the Revolution Will Not Be Televised) (2021) a documentary about a magical summer in Harlem that brought established and emerging soul and gospel acts together stitched lovingly together by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from professional footage stored in the basement of original producer and filmographer Hal Tulchin.
Following a decade of assassinations, riots, and cultural demoralization, the 4th annual Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 was part showcase, part busy work, part celebration of the musical diversity of Black Culture. Tony Lawrence, New York nightclub singer and gifted negotiator was tapped as musical director to pull off 6 consecutive weekends of entertainment. With unlikely partnerships, like liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay and various community groups to keep people fed and comfortable, 300,000 people showed up to turn up. Attendee Musa Jackson called it “the ultimate Black BBQ.”
Themed weekends like Gospel, Motown, and Afro-Caribbean showcased talent from across the Ebony Spectrum of Song, highlighting Black positivity and activism. Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Chambers Brothers, Nina Simone, Herbie Mann, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin Mongo Santamaria, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Operation Breadbasket Band, and more. If the mention of these entertainers makes your heart race and the hair on your arms stand up, imagine what it must have been like to walk a few blocks to the part and hear them live!
Questlove patches together the best of the festival footage and sound creating a living history that sat abandoned because no one was interested in a documentary on a Black music festival. With reaction interviews with Chris Rock, Sheila E, Mavis Staple, Marilyn McCoo, and others, restored from the original videotape it sounds and looks great, and other than the historical tension of violence, this is a documentary that focuses on the music. Summer of Soul is a true celebration and uplifting of the rhythmic thread of the music that binds our souls together. While touching on the Black Activism without wallowing in Black trauma, Questlove never lets the political struggles too far out of sight, since the Struggle remains the underlying beat of Soul music.
I won’t call Summer of Soul the “Black Woodstock” because that diminishes what it was. There was nothing like the Harlem Cultural Festival and nothing like the acts it assembled. As most positive things that are Black-centered, at the time no one was interested in the footage of the summer festival, not with Woodstock making so much of its own single weekend noise. Questlove describes the unwanted and unhomed footage as an example of Black erasure and could not believe there was no record or documentation of this incredible historical, cultural event. He said, “The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists – it was incredibly important to me to get that history right.”
Summer of Soul is a confirmation of the summer of 1969 in Harlem, a nearly forgotten festival, barely remembered as an ecstatic fever dream. It’s an incredible celebration of its time and the timeless sound that lives on.
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021) is presented with peace, love, and soul by Hulu, Onyx Collective and Searchlight Pictures and is not rated, because everyone deserves to be bathed in its stunning aural glory.