Synopsis: During the same summer as Woodstock, over 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The footage from the festival sat in a basement, unseen for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost—until now.
Stars: Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Tony Lawrence, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln, Mavis Staples, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, John V. Lindsay, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria
Director: Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: I wouldn’t normally say this, but the time it’s taking you to read this review is time you are wasting that could be watching Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a fantastic new documentary from Hulu, Onyx Collective and Searchlight Pictures. If you’ve already seen the documentary, welcome. If you haven’t, come back when you’re finished.
OK…now that we’re all caught up…wasn’t that amazing?
I was a true lunatic and didn’t think I would be as enthralled with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s filmmaking debut, a documentary on The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 that took place in Mount Morris Park. While Woodstock wound up getting most of the attention as the music festival of that summer and though a man landed on the moon during while the world watched, the amount of legendary talent that found its way onto the stage over six weeks was simply unparalleled. And, until now, it’s gone unseen. In my mind, I was thinking Thompson’s film was going to be more a music documentary that focused on the festival itself, but he’s opened it up to be so very much more than that.
Along with watching the footage from the concert that has been skillfully edited with interviews in the present with the people and performers that were there, audiences get a history lesson on Black culture and deeper insight into why this festival in Harlem was of such importance at the time. This speaks not just to the time and tone of the happenings of that period of history, but it helps in our understanding of how unearthing it now for modern audiences to discover is that much more significant. Cultural experts tie performers to history-making events or demonstrations, people from the crowd speak to what it was like seeing their favorite artist live in person, and several artists watch the footage and react live with their remembrances of their contributions to the festival.
Aside from the fact that the footage has been restored to crystalline glory and the sound is clear as a bell, the performances captured often represent these legends in either their peak prime or breakthrough best. You have Stevie Wonder transitioning to a new and more adult kind of music, daring at the time but now instantly recognizable as his sound. The Staples Singers appear, blowing the heavenly roof off the roofless space. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is there, sending the spirit out into the crowd. David Ruffin, recently separated from The Temptations, crooning ‘My Girl’ as a solo act and still making it shine. The Fifth Dimension, in gaudy costumes that former members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo have no choice but to laugh at, appearing not just to represent their music but to prove something to themselves. The striking Nina Simone gets an extended segment…and with good reason. The list goes on…
Winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival bodes well for Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and you can bet that with it being widely available on Hulu its Oscar chances are high…and well deserved. That it even exists is reason to celebrate and be grateful, hearing what happened to the film after all the footage was shot is frustrating but not unexpected considering the era in which it occurred. It may have taken over fifty years for it to make its way to the public at large but the wait was absolutely worth it. Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in music.