Summer of Soul
New York City, summer 1969. Simultaneous to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, 300,000 people are attending a different, equally significant series of free concerts at Mount Morris Park: the Harlem Cultural Festival. With a line-up including The 5th Dimension, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, and B.B. King, one may wonder why today the event has all but faded into obscurity – particularly when, over fifty years later, Woodstock’s legacy firmly prevails. The answer, as well as never-before-seen recordings of the shows themselves, is contained within Summer of Soul, a wonderful new documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
The film features painstakingly restored archival footage which had been left to gather dust in a basement for half a century. It chronicles the event from start to finish via a highlight-reel of performances, masterfully woven together to grant each musician the stage for an appropriate amount of time. One must admire the editing here, rendering the unenviable task of abbreviating these historic recordings effortless. What is left is two hours of sublime music; viewers will likely struggle to sit still or refrain from singing whilst watching. No theatre experience this year will be nearly as electrifying.
Thompson’s doc is subtitled “When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”, giving some indication of its didactic purposes. Intercut with the music are personal stories from attendees which provide context for the period. Beyond the nuclear collection of talent in one place, the festival held greater importance as a celebration of black artists and culture. That Questlove manages to make the case for art as politics, solidarity as protest, pride as rebellion, linking 1969 to 2021 all through the power of music, is a testament to the strength of the footage on display. Just watch Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in tribute to Martin Luther King – the energy is palpable. Summer of Soul is full of moments like that, whether breath-taking or heart-warming, making it no surprise that this won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival: it is the must-see documentary of the year.
Screenings of this film:
|2021/2022 Autumn Term – (digital)|