American history is full of erasure. If you ask the average person about a music festival in the summer 1969, they will respond Woodstock. Why? Because it was documented, talked about, and lauded as a touchstone for the sixties. However, about 100 miles away in the same summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival was happening. The Cultural Festival occurred over six weeks in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York City. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a documentary about this festival.
In his directorial debut, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson reviewed and edited footage of the festival that had been stored in a basement for 50 years. The fact that this footage was not damaged beyond repair is amazing in and of itself! The festival included live performances from across the spectrum of black music: Motown, Gospel, Funk, Blues, Jazz, traditional African, Afro Caribbean; name the genre and it was probably represented. To have been present at this festival had to have been awe-inspiring, seeing Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, et. al. at the top of their game.
In addition, Thompson punctuated the performances by interviewing the surviving artists that performed while they were watching the video. This allowed the artists to provide their feelings about their performances and why it was so important for them to be there. It’s worth just to witness the delight in the faces of The 5th Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. is utter joy!
If Summer of Soul were just a compilation of the performances during the six-week festival, it would be impressive. The addition of interviews with performers—as well as attendees—makes it brilliant. This production excels even further, however, with the addition of news footage that gives the viewer a clear picture of the timbre of Harlem in 1969, with some news events impacting the festival directly in the moment. Watching this film is like discovering a time capsule!
I personally cannot recommend this documentary enough. It will be released in theaters and on Hulu on July 2nd. If you are going to watch this at home, I highly suggest getting some drinks, some friends (if you can socially distance), turning up the volume on the sound system and let this masterpiece wash over you!
Thank you, Allied Global, for the tickets to the advance screening.
Five power fists out of Five!