CAST: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Jesse Jackson, Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sal Masekela, David Ruffin, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Chambers Brothers, Max Roach, John V. Lindsay, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Ray Barretto, Cal Tjader, Babatunde Olatunji, Hugh Masekela, Mongo Santamaria, Greg Tate, Herbie Mann, Denise Oliver-Velez, The Edwin Hawkins Singers
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
BASICALLY…: In 1969, the legendary Harlem Cultural Festival plays host to some of the most celebrated artists in African-American music history…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review of Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) was conducted as part of the Sheffield DocFest 2021.
In the summer of 1969, while everyone was fixated on the moon landings to Woodstock, another major music festival was taking place right in the heart of Harlem, New York. It played host to several big-name acts from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone, attracted nearly as many people as Woodstock, and is still remembered fondly to this day by attendees and performers as one of the most euphoric moments of their lives – and yet, for the past fifty years, all recorded evidence of its very existence had been sitting in a basement collecting dust, yet to be seen by anyone outside of the people who either were there in person or actually filmed it.
Major props, then, to first-time filmmaker Ahmir-Khalib Thompson – best known as Questlove, frontman for The Roots – who has gone through 40-odd hours’ worth of footage and spliced together some of the highlights, so that the Harlem Cultural Festival can once again become a prominent talking point in our society. His resulting project, entitled Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), is a ferocious celebration of all things black and beautiful, presenting us with a non-stop soundtrack of revelatory performances by even more phenomenal performers, and for the first time ever letting the world witness a cultural milestone that needs to be witnessed to be believed.
Questlove’s film presents itself as part-archival, featuring several headlining acts predominantly from the world of black music, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and many others, playing to waves of excited black audiences members, and part-talking heads documentary as numerous attendees, performers and civil rights activists recalling their own experiences at the event. Many of these people are shown footage of the festival for the very first time, and each one of them has very emotional reactions as the memories come flooding back to them, leading them to recall not just the ecstatic vibe of the festival itself – from the music to the food vendors selling homemade meals – but also its cultural significance, linking it to several historical contexts of the time including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year prior, the Vietnam war, the sharp rise of poverty and drug use in black communities such as Harlem, and even the moon landings which were going on at the exact same time (which most people confess to not caring that much about because they’re having such a good time at this festival).
It is a documentary that is rich with content beyond just simply replaying utterly mind-blowing sets by incredible musicians, something which Questlove manages to balance delicately; being a musician himself, he sees to be fully aware of the significance that this kind of music brings to the table, and uses it to tell the story of a community that is itself ripe with so much culture and rhythm that they’re practically bursting at the seams. In many ways, it serves as a multifaceted love letter to so many areas of black life, whether it’s the experiences of growing up in and around the streets of Harlem, or admiring certain black performers for their courage to stand up for civil rights as well as dazzle the world with their immaculate singing voices. One such story we hear is from performer Mavis Staples, who via voiceover recounts how she performed a rendition of gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” – notably the favourite song of Martin Luther King Jr. – alongside her personal hero Mahalia Jackson during a eulogy for the slain civil rights leader, and seeing the two of them perform together with their combined vocal range and bouncy stage charisma is enough to give you goosebumps. The two singers show such vibrancy in their performances, whilst the reactions from the crowd are gobsmacked to say the least, that you feel as though you have gone through a minor religious experience, just from the power of their voices alone; Questlove brings many moments like this to pure life, and almost always it is pure ecstasy to watch as well as experience.
It’s very interesting how the film also touches upon so many of the historical connotations surrounding this festival, and how they contribute to its ultimate place in 20th century history which has been devastatingly left unknown for over fifty years. Questlove covers many other fascinating areas in addition to the ones listed above, such as how the festival was also a significant cultural breakthrough for Puerto Rican citizens and musicians (Lin-Manuel Miranda cameos in a talking-head segment to discuss how artists like Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretta could not have achieved such prominent billing at a much whiter gathering around that time), and how members of the Black Panther Party stepped in to provide security when the local police force refused to do so. It’s a lot to consider all at once, especially with an endless soundtrack of lively numbers playing in the background, so Questlove’s film very nearly becomes a little too exhausting an experience, but the filmmaker brings it right back with spoken-word performances by Nina Simone which contain powerful language about the ways to go forward with achieving full equality and diversity.
This is a must for any music-lovers, for the film covers just about every genre from era-appropriate pop to the blues to Motown funk and so on, and constantly leaves you entertained as it moves from one euphoric performance or intriguing historical context to the next. When you can, absolutely try and see Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) on the biggest screen possible, because a long-forgotten cultural milestone such as this needs to be experienced as loud and as encompassing as it was back in that summer of ’69.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a euphoric documentary that sees director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson present footage from the culturally significant Harlem Cultural Festival to the public for the first time, with hugely entertaining and well-researched results.