Movie Review: Summer of Soul (2021)

Title: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Production Company:Onyx Collective | Concordia Studio | Play/Action Pictures | LarryBilly Productions | Mass Distraction Media | RadicalMedia | Vulcan Productions

Summer of Soul is a documentary created from long-lost film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival held in 1969 in Mount Morris Park (a few years before it was renamed Marcus Garvey Park).  The festival was held over six Sundays in the summer of 1969 to celebrate Black music and culture at a time of rising crime, drug abuse, and urban riots. The Harlem Cultural Festival was supported by Mayor John Lindsay, one of the last liberal Republicans who had a lot of support for New York’s Black voters, and the concerts seem to fit into his vision documented in the book Fun City.  However, the New York Police Department refused to participate in one of the concerts leading the Black Panther Party providing security.

While overlooked in American cultural history, the festival has become known as “the Black Woodstock” in comparison to the more famous weekend-long festival held in rural New York State the same summer.  I’d argue that the Harlem Cultural Festival had a far better slate of musical talent than Woodstock, and most definitely the stage and sound conditions in Harlem allowed for the artists to provide better performances.  The Harlem Cultural Festival can also be compared to the Wattstax (itself a riff on “Woodstock”) festival held in Los Angeles in August 1972 which is more well known partly due to the 1973 documentary film.

Questlove drew on 40 hours of concert footage, which was really impressively filmed, and also uses contemporary archival footage to complement the concert scenes.  Issues of concern in the Harlem community, and by extension Black Americans at large are discussed in line with the musical performances include the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, the rise of the term “Black” to replace Negro and the growing Black Pride and Pan-African movements, as well as the Apollo 11 moon landing that occured on one of the Sundays and did not impress concertgoers who were interviewed.

The movie also features interviews with participants and spectators of the Harlem Cultural Festival reflecting on the artists and their performances.  The 5th Dimension, a vocal group whose songs can be cheezy but nonetheless irresistible, talk about how their sound was derided in the Black community as sounding “too white.” But the group gets a warm reception from the throngs at the Harlem Cultural Festival and have never sounded better to my ears.

The Motown ideal of a group of men in tailored suits who perform with precision is challenged by Sly and the Family Stone.  The band not only has women playing instruments but it also has a white man on the drums, and a rather leisurely approach to dress and performance times.  Sly and the Family Stone appealed to the younger generation of Harlemites and were able to cross over to the counterculture.  I think that they are the only act that also performed at Woodstock, and near the end of Summer of Soul is a performance of “Higher,” a song that’s also significant in the Woodstock documentary.

Each of the six Sundays had a different musical focus so there’s a great diversity of musical styles including gospel, blues, soul, jazz, Afro-fusion, and funk. Performers who appear in the film include Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin (just after going solo from The Temptations), Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, and Tony Lawrence (the singer and concert promoter who organized the festival).  I like what Questlove has done in creating a document that provides the context and larger social issues related to the Harlem Cultural Festival.  But I’d also love to see a straight-up concert movie featuring all of these great artists.

Rating:  *****