A version of this review originally aired in January during our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage.
If you had walked to Harlem’s Mount Morris Park just about any Sunday in the summer of 1969, you would have encountered a crowd. There would be vendors selling food, children running around, families grilling meat, people basking in the sun. You would hear laughter, chatter and the sound of a good time. Decades later, you would smell what a resident remembers, like the combined scent of “Afro Sheen and chicken” wafting through the air. You would probably catch someone climbing a tree, trying to get a better view of the scene set in the middle of the grass. Tony Lawrence, a local mover and shaker who had been recruited by the New York City Parks Department several years earlier to host outdoor events in the neighborhood, would be on this platform, featuring the next act. He was the official MC of the Harlem Cultural Festival, an ongoing free concert series which, in its third year of existence, was in full swing.
Which means you could walk through the crowd and possibly catch a comedian (Moms Mabley, Willie Tyler and Lester), or a gospel band (Professor Herman and the Voices of Faith), or anyone from BB King. in the 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson in Mongo Santamaria, Stevie Wonder in Sly and the family stone. This was the level of talent that regularly arrived at the cultural festival, to entertain, enlighten and empower everyone in and around the upscale neighborhoods. You would see what one participant described, with a sense of awe and pride, as “a sea of blacks”. You would see a community.
The summer of the soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary on the Once-in-a-Lifetime Queue series dubbed “The Black Woodstock”, exposes it all for those of us who weren’t here to witness it firsthand . (It hits theaters today in New York and Los Angeles, and expands / begins streaming on Hulu on July 2.) About that nickname: It was called so by Hal Tulchin, who was got to chronicle as much of the ’69 party as possible. The cameras rolled every time an artist took the stage (which had to be placed facing the sun, he said, as they couldn’t afford a massive light installation) and they captured the crowd singing, dancing. and dig the scene. About 100 miles away that same summer, another big event was underway at a farm in the upstate, and the film that ended up documenting those three days of peace and music had been a success. Tulchin thought the comparison might help him sell his project as some kind of backing piece. No. In other words: the “Woodstock” half of the moniker wasn’t the part that potential buyers had a problem with.
This explains to you why the extraordinary images of these gatherings in Mount Morris Park remained in Tulchin’s house for almost 50 years, until the Roots drummer found out that yes, the images existed, they had been preserved and voila. , it was good. Yes Summer of the soul were nothing but a rescue mission through the labor of love of a soul music specialist, it would still be a top notch concert film. What is captured here is a vibrant, vital and essential look at a handful of performers in their prime, and then some. A 19 year old Stevie Wonder jumping in front of his keyboard before typing a maniacal drum solo. Nina Simone transforming “Backlash Blues” into the equivalent of a boxing match. Fresh out of Temptations David Ruffin held a single note for 20 seconds before immediately launching into a soul-man scream. Sly and his multiracial band in their prime, reminding you that funk is both a noun and a verb. Gladys Knight and the Pips stop-on-a-dime-hand-you-back-nine-hundred-change choreography. Mahalia and Mavis Staples together, taking everyone to church.
It’s black music at the end of a turbulent decade filled with vested interests and lost leaders. It’s Motown, blues, R&B, Afro-Latino jams and hymns of praise – songs that are loving, healing, witty, carnal, rousing and rabid. Thompson knows this music well, and he tries to preserve it all, to save those lost performances from the ravages of time and the racist tastes that originally left film boxes dusting in a basement. Indeed, the musician-turned-documentary filmmaker said that he had initially planned to make something closer to a review of the greatest hits, selecting the best moments from the eight weekends of the festival.
What was happening outside his – and everyone else’s – door during the raging summer of 2020, however, prompted Thompson to take it a step further, and Summer of the soul Not only flesh out the story of the heyday of the Harlem Cultural Festival, but provide a necessary context around it. It is also a testament to the rich culture of the neighborhood in the late 1960s, during the era of black power and beauty. And it is the portrait of a moment of violence and anxiety, riots and volatility, drug epidemics in disadvantaged neighborhoods and a divide created by the defense of non-violent protests against self-defense. by any means necessary. Edit after edit, we see how the era was faced with “white America at its worst” versus “neo-super-black”. Or, to use another quote from someone who remembers one of those Sundays in the park, how “the concert was like a rose going through cement.” You understand what people were up against, which makes the gathering scenes of people even more poignant and joyful. They are not just citizens. They are survivors. It’s the soundtrack of a struggle, but also of a hard-won day of celebration in the sun.
There is no direct parallel to these struggles and the ones African Americans face today, built into the film’s mix here, no footage from Ferguson or BLM used to cut down on time – Thompson knows that we will recognize it for ourselves, as it did. (The closest he gets is the film’s referential subtitle: “… Or: When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.”) Summer of the soul is both a tribute to the artists and, just as important, to their audiences – making it not only a great concert film but a great documentary, period. When a participant who has become an adult watches old footage from these shows, he says he wondered if he had dreamed of all of this: “Now I know I’m not crazy. Her memories, and the memories of many generations, have been kept alive, thanks to Questlove. It’s a hell of a recovery. And it’s damn close to a masterpiece.