VOD film review: Summer of Soul
Matthew Turner | On 30, Jul 2021
Director: Ahmir Thompson
Cast: Stevie Wonder, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr., Al Sharpton, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Greg Errico, Greg Tate, Musa Jackson, Darryl Lewis, Nina Simone, BB King, Jesse Jackson, Mahalia Jackson
It’s truly mind-boggling to think that the extraordinary concert footage in Summer of Soul lay unseen and forgotten in a vault for nearly 50 years. That an event of such profound cultural significance could go completely ignored by the media, film producers and historians alike completely justifies the documentary’s official subtitle: Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.
Directed by Amir “Questlove” Thompson (his debut feature), Summer of Soul explores the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that took place over six weeks in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969. Filmed, on spec, by TV veteran Hal Tulchin, the event was organised by promoter Tony Lawrence, who assembled an incredible Who’s Who of Black musical talent, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight and the Pips, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and many more.
Even if the film consisted solely of the concert footage, it would be astonishing. The vibrant performances are sublime, and the performers are visibly moved by the sea of Black faces in front of them in the park. There are so many great moments that it would be impossible to list them all, but random highlights include: a 19 year-old Stevie Wonder joyfully jamming on the drums; Nina Simone showcasing a new song and then reading the incendiary poem Are You Ready?; The Temptations’ David Ruffin doing a solo version of My Girl; and the concert’s most powerful sequence, Mavis Staples duetting with Mahalia Jackson on Martin Luther King’s favourite gospel song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord.
However, the film doesn’t restrict itself to the concert footage – instead, Questlove affords the event the historical context it deserves, through the use of archive footage and various commentators. Accordingly, the film explores such details as the recent reclamation of the word “Black” (journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks movingly about persuading the New York Times to use “Black” rather than “negro”), the still keenly felt losses of the murdered leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and current Harlem relations with the NYPD – they largely stayed away, with the Black Panthers providing security – as well as the fact that another culturally significant music festival was taking place upstate at the same time. (Tulchin later tried to drum up interest in the film by pitching it as Black Woodstock, but to no avail.)
Perhaps the best moment of historical context is the revelation that the moon landings took place while the concert was enjoying its third weekend. We’re so used to films and TV shows telling us that everyone in America was watching the event on TV, yet here’s an entire park full of people who apparently couldn’t care less. To that end, Questlove includes some wonderful reactions from people being told the news by breathless reporters that basically amount to, “Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”
Questlove’s real stroke of genius is to include to-camera interviews with both performers and attendees, where he shows them the concert footage and films their reactions. In addition to further underscoring the concert’s cultural significance, this yields a number of beautiful moments, from an attendee’s poetic description of the event as being “like a rose coming through cement” to the very funny reactions from the members of The 5th Dimension (who at the time were regularly criticised for being “not Black enough”) to the tearful response from witness Musa Jackson, who attended the concert as a child and is relieved to have his hazy memories confirmed.