‘Summer of Soul’: Celebrate a 20th-century landmark event with this 21st-century cinematic treasure

“Summer of Soul” – The Summer of 1969. 

What’s the first image that comes to mind?  The Apollo 11 Moon landing or Woodstock (or the Woodstock Rock Festival) might be # 1 for most Americans.   

For the Gen X crowd, Bryan Adams’ 1985 single “Summer of ‘69” could round out the Top 3.

After watching director Questlove’s enormously entertaining and informative documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” – the best film I’ve seen this year and the best doc since “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012), my #1 film of 2012 – move over Bryan Adams.  The Harlem Cultural Festival – held from June 29 to Aug. 24, 1969, in Mount Morris Park – joins the famed NASA space mission and that other music party, about 100 miles away on a Bethel, N.Y. farm.

If you haven’t heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival, you are not alone.  Although 300,000 people – primarily Black audiences – attended the free New York City celebration of jazz, blues, Motown, gospel, and more, this was 52 years ago.  Promoter Tony Lawrence worked with the NYC government, skilled camera crews, and countless other moving parts, but no takers bought or licensed the rights for the video of about two dozen (or more) musical acts that performed over six joyful Sundays during June, July, and Aug.

The documentary states, “After that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years.  It has never been seen.  Until now.”

19-year-old Stevie Wonder

Questlove – one of the founding members of The Roots – had to decide which groups, singers, and songs would make the cut into his documentary.  He faced a similar puzzle as the “Woodstock” (1970) doc team, which included assistant director/editor Martin Scorsese.

“Summer of Soul” has a 112-minute runtime, and during a Feb. 3, 2021 IndieWire interview, Questlove said that 45 hours of festival film footage existed, so do the math.  Wow, and during the same conversation, he explains his process.

“I probably had to do six or seven rounds of just sitting through all that footage, and either directly watching it or studying it, or just having it on in the background, and something catches my attention,” Questlove says. 

He adds, “I wanted to take note of what just gave me goosebumps.”

The man’s goosebumps-sense is on-point.  He finds and picks an abundance of flat-out dazzling performances from The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, and more, including a mesmerizing 19-year-old Stevie Wonder donning a stylish brown suit with a mustard ruffles shirt flaring from underneath his jacket collars.

(On a personal note, my favorite moments are from The Fifth Dimension and Sly and the Family Stone, but I won’t give away the specific songs in this review.) 

The film offers seemingly countless pulse-pounding and captivating on-stage recordings, but Questlove lets the video run for entire songs, rather than only offering small, 30-second clips here and there.  We are treated to the 3-to-5-minute classic tracks from start to finish.  Frequently with any live performance, singers and their bands give us a little extra, which our filmmaker and the fans in attendance proudly embrace. 

Dorinda Drake was 19 at the time, and she remembers walking with her three best friends to the park because it was only 10 blocks away.

“It was exciting.  We hadn’t had anything like that in Harlem that I can recall,” Drake says.

Musa Jackson was just a kid in 1969.

“I remember being with my family walking around the park, and as far as I could see, it was just Black people.  This was the first time I’d ever seen so many of us.  It was incredible,” Jackson says.

“Beautiful, beautiful women, beautiful men.  It was like seeing royalty, ” he adds.

Gladys Knight & the Pips

Royalty saw the fans and Musa too.  Gladys Knight & the Pips sang on July 20 (the same day as the aforementioned Apollo landing), and she couldn’t get over the vast numbers to watch her perform.

“When I stepped on stage, I was totally, totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that,” Knight gushes. 

In between songs and sometimes during them, Questlove finds stars like Knight and Lin-Manuel Miranda to opine about the festival’s magnitude, but he also weaves political and socio-economic issues of the time. The 1960s saw the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Heroin addictions reached epidemic levels in American cities, and young men were fighting and dying in Vietnam. 

The country was on fire, but the film – through Questlove and his editors like Joshua L. Pearson – shows how music is a release for the men and women on stage and in the audience.

“Summer of Soul” is a beautiful, eye-opening movie that reaches out into culture, spiritual beliefs, politics, race relations, and more, and they are all connected to the music. 

It’s a yesterdecade time warp into a wondrous collection of shows – with striking fashion choices and theatric movements – that should’ve been given pop culture references over the last 50 years.  Most regrettably, they haven’t, and generations have passed without sharing collective, public discourse.  Well, everyone can now celebrate the Harlem Cultural Festival, a 20th-century landmark event, with this 21st-century cinematic treasure.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Featuring: Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King

Directed by: Questlove

Runtime: 112 minutes

Rated: PG-13

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