Out today in theaters and streaming on Hulu is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson SUMMER OF SOUL, chronicling the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in the summer of 1969. A treasure trove of musical performances and iconic appearances, the video footage sat undisturbed in a basement for fifty years until this documentary was made.
Filmed just 100 miles south of Woodstock, the event was overshadowed by the aforementioned, which occurred after, and unceremoniously dismissed. Enter Thompson, who has shone a spotlight on this forgotten wonder while creating a remarkable tribute to Black culture, fashion, music and the community.
Occurring one year after the assassinations of Dr. King and RFK, with communities still mourning the murders of Malcolm X and JFK years earlier, and the pending gloom of the Vietnam War, the festival was a period of jubilance in Harlem and for many of the performers themselves – which included the likes of Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Staples Singers, Sly & The Family Stone, and many more.
Questlove displays his adeptness at gathering personal accounts from many of the performers involving their recollections from that day. One of the most poignant being the memories of The 5th Dimension members Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo, with McCoo becoming outwardly emotional while recalling acceptance by the primarily Black and Brown attended festival after facing critiques about their sound being “too white.”
Another prized segment contains footage of a young Jesse Jackson speaking to the crowd about the moments before Dr. King’s murder, sharing that the civil rights leader had requested someone play Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord” – a song that Jackson is on stage preparing to sing with a young Mavis Staples.
To be honest, Thompson could have bookended title cards at the beginning and end of the concert footage, and this still would have been a magnificent watch. But he delicately weaves archival moments with performances, first-hand accounts from attendees, musicians, music managers and current celebrities sharing thoughts on late performers – like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sheila E. who spoke about the Spanish Harlem influences and the impact of musicians like the late Ray Barretto.
The film also serves as a mini history lesson of the period, with references to the ’69 moon landing and how many Black people – including comedians Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, and Willie Tyler and Lester whose quips are highlighted in the documentary – felt that the money used on that mission would be better spent servicing the needy in inner city communities like Harlem – with a predominance of impoverished people of color.
I’m sure the amount of footage that Thompson had to review and research was massive, and my only critique is that a couple of the transitions moved rather rapidly – the most notable being at the end of the documentary, which I felt was kind of abrupt considering the weight of the film I’d just watched.
Yet, I found it to be an inspiring and informative film that brilliantly depicts the mood of the times. “Summer of Soul” is a necessary look at a pivotal cultural event that should have been as highly regarded in music history as its successor. Even when promoters attempted to bill it as the “Black Woodstock,” it was heavily dismissed. But thanks to the inquisitiveness and musical acumen of Questlove, that is no longer the case.
I rate the film 4.5 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
SUMMER OF SOUL premiered today July 2 in theaters and is streaming now on Hulu.
Until next thought, Thomasena