In Questlove’s doc "Summer of Soul," a musical celebration of Black joy finally has its moment
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
Documentary featuring the music of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach and the 5th Dimension. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Streaming on Disney Plus beginning July 2. 117 minutes.
In musical terms, the summer of 1969 is remembered for Woodstock, a three-day festival in an upstate New York farmer’s field that drew upwards of 400,000 people and defined an era of youthful joy and rebellion.
That same summer, 300,000 people gathered in a public park in New York City for the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-weekend celebration of Black music and identity that has been all but forgotten for the past half-century.
Until now. “Summer of Soul,” a documentary that marks the filmmaking debut of musical polymath Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer/co-frontman of the Roots hip-hop band, seeks to rekindle faded memories of a significant melodious moment and also to right a historical wrong.
His brilliant found-footage restoration of many hours of unseen videotape of the event represents not only superior filmmaking — it won two top prizes at Sundance 2021, where it premiered — but also a hip-shaking history lesson and a challenge to current and future times.
Woodstock grabbed all the (mostly white) press in ’69 and beyond not just for its many acclaimed rock and pop performances, from Jimi Hendrix to the Who, but also for its canny branding and marketing. The latter included an Oscar-winning doc, an accompanying soundtrack album and the myth-building radio hit “Woodstock,” written by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who hadn’t even attended the fest.
The Harlem Cultural Festival had none of these promotional advantages, although it was originally filmed with the intention of a TV broadcast, until executive-suite weasels decided they couldn’t make any money with a “Black Woodstock.” Fortunately, however, the video survived 50 years of basement storage, with its bright colours and immaculate sound miraculously undimmed by the long wait.
The Harlem fest deserves to be remembered not just for its stellar music — electrifying shows by such soul, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin diaspora greats as Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Max Roach and Hugh Masekela — but for its contribution to a societal awakening that continues today.
As Questlove notes via archival news footage and recent interviews with performers, attendees and cultural commentators, the summer of ’69 saw the affirmation of the “Black Is Beautiful” rallying cry (more recently asserted as “Black joy”) come to fruition.
The sentiment is perhaps best expressed in Simone’s celebratory and exhortatory song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” part of her Harlem fest set that is one of the many highlights of “Summer of Soul.”
Other peak moments include a spirited performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” wherein he employs a keyboard riff that hints of the “Superstition” funk to come. We also see Stevie playing the drums on one number instead of his signature clavinet, attesting to the breadth of his musical talent.
Pop soul group the 5th Dimension, dressed in matching fringed orange, yellow and red outfits, delights the crowd with “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” their psychedelic R&B take on a popular tune from the “Hair” Broadway musical.
Bandleader Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone leads his diverse rock/R&B combo through a crowd-rousing “Everyday People” and “Higher,” songs that will also move the Woodstock hordes a few weeks later — but we know now that the Harlem Cultural Festival had them first.
The power of the music and sentiments of “Summer of Soul” comes through all the more when Questlove notes that one of the most well-attended Sundays of the multi-weekend Harlem fest was July 20, the same day Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
Instead of staying home to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make exploration history on TV, some 50,000 Harlem residents turned out in person to watch Wonder, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and Gladys Knight and the Pips make musical history on the stage.
Questlove includes interview clips with attendees who say the billions of dollars spent on the moon landing could be better used helping places like Harlem, which at the time was in the throes of an escalating heroin epidemic. This revolutionary spirit endures and “Summer of Soul” is right there with it. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)