Summer of Soul Review: A Breathtaking Musical Documentary
In the summer of 1969, the musical world had its focus on “3 Days of Peace and Music” at the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York. During that same period, one hundred miles south in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, another concert series inspired a generation and helped define a sea change in the racial identity of African Americans. The Harlem Cultural Festival, nicknamed the “Black Woodstock,” ran for six weekends from June 29 to August 24. Legendary acts like Stevie Wonder, BB King and Nina Simone performed before more than three hundred thousand people in the culmination of a tumultuous decade. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the famous drummer for The Roots, recounts this historic event with interviews and stunning archival footage, not seen in fifty years. Summer of Soul
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is an impressive music documentary. The winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival takes a snapshot of a watershed social moment. The country was recovering from the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War broke out with a disproportionate number of poor black recruits. Drug use and unemployment is a rampant scourge. New York City was still reeling from the race riots of the previous year. A unifying event was needed to bring people together in celebration.
Summer of the soul opens with a fiery intro from Stevie Wonder, then nineteen years old. The black and brunette crowd claps in amazement as the blind performer plays an evil drum solo. Questlove, in his feature film directorial debut, has original festival goers seeing the footage for the first time. It goes back and forth from performers, to crowd shots, to commentary, and to historical newsreels of the time. Gladys Knight speaks emotionally of the impact and empowerment of seeing so many black people enjoying her music. The event had been practically forgotten. The images shown were recorded at concerts, but languished in vaults for decades. The concerts had only existed in memory until that moment. The reaction to the footage is quite moving.
Questlove spends a lot of screen time with Tony Lawrence, the organizer and host of the festival. Lawrence was a singer, entertainer, and bon vivant. Her charm and infectious personality moved mountains to promote the concerts. The film explores Lawrence’s warm relationship with the Republican Mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay. Who was a staunch advocate for racial equality and poverty alleviation. The scenes with Lawrence and Lindsay on stage showed the audience that there was purpose in the hallways. Lindsay’s support and Lawrence’s ability to obtain corporate sponsorships was a shining example of cooperation.
Summer of the soul It will surprise you with fantastic musical performances. I got chills watching The Fifth Dimension sing their mega hit, “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine in)”. Then you have David Ruffin from The Temptations, a superstar at the time, energizing the crowd with “My Girl.” Questlove also focuses on the blues with featured clips from BB King and the mother of the gospel, the iconic Mahalia Jackson. Sly and the Family Stone set the stage on fire with their energetic mix of funk, r & by rock. Musical acts were still very segregated at the time. Commentators discuss how a co-ed band with gender parity was so innovative. One woman, who was a teenager at the time, had never seen a trumpeter sing, dance, and lead the band. That moment opened his eyes to what could be; a powerful moment in the movie.
Summer of the soul he makes no effort to discuss racial inequalities and disparities. One notable scene has a local news reporter asking festival goers how they felt about America’s moon landing. It was recognized as an achievement, but completely useless to poor blacks who suffered from hunger, work, and medical care. Comedian Redd Foxx delivers a hilarious and scathingly sarcastic response. Nina Simone’s set ends with a poetry reading that sums up the hopes, dreams, and anger that many people felt. The concerts served as a megaphone for honest comments.
Summer of Soul : The Harlem Cultural Festival was overlooked and buried. Hal Tulchin, who filmed the concerts, talks frankly about how they couldn’t sell the footage afterward. Television studios were interested in Woodstock, not “Black Woodstock.” These incredible performances were lost in time. Questlove and the producers deserve all the praise for unearthing this wonderful event. The movie is beautifully designed; a celebratory testimony to all who made the festival possible. Summer of the soul It is produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel. It is currently in a limited theatrical release from Searchlight Pictures with a July 2 premiere on Hulu.
Summer of Soul, Hulu, Streaming
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