If the accolades bestowed on Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut as a feature documentary filmmaker are any indication, we are on the cusp of a fresh “Summer of Soul” in the hot months of 2021. Claiming both Grand Jury and Audience Award prizes following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Questlove’s beautifully constructed movie is a history lesson and a celebration. Something akin to the unearthing of a time capsule, Summer of Soul presents the sights, sounds and memories of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts staged over a six-week period at Marcus Garvey Park (then called Mount Morris Park) in New York.
Featuring thrilling live sets by a to-die-for lineup including Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Max Roach, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the 5th Dimension, David Ruffin and many others, the concerts have been called the Black Woodstock for their emphasis on African American pride and popular culture. Despite capturing the shows, producer Hal Tulchin never transformed the material into a theatrically-released concert film or films (WNEW Channel 5 did air a series of specials at the time). Incredibly, the treasure trove sat in a basement until Questlove made it his mission to restore the footage.
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Questlove assembles the wide range of elements with the skill of a seasoned scholar and practitioner, blending songs with memories in a master mix made especially challenging given the staggering amount of talent and the desire to tell the accompanying story. Several interviews and articles have addressed the Roots co-founder’s bona fides as musicologist, DJ, percussionist, historian, record producer, songwriter and superfan. The full title of the movie, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), alludes to the messages of pride and power sparking and crackling through the music.
Many of the interview subjects contextualize 1969 as an inflection point in Black history, citing the recent changes and upheavals of the American civil rights movement as catalyst and prologue. The Black Power movement — still in its ascendance at the time of the Harlem Cultural Festival — informs the attitudes of the performers on the stage and the citizens in the audience. Fifty years have elapsed in a blink. And yet, Summer of Soul is one of those instantly recognizable artifacts armored in timelessness. True, the “creamsicle” getups of the 5th Dimension all but shout their date and time stamp, but plenty of other togs would be fashion-forward today.
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Musa Jackson, who attended the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as a boy, describes the general atmosphere, recalling the beautiful women and beautiful men (“It was like seeing royalty”). He paints a vivid picture of a scene familiar to all who love the adrenaline rush of outdoor concerts: “It was the ultimate Black barbecue. And then you start to hear music and someone speaking. And you knew it was something bigger.” Summer of Soul is indeed something bigger. Fans of rock, R&B, soul, funk, pop, gospel and jazz will now be able to comb through the songs to study highlights and locate new favorites.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.