Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) - henceforth known as just Summer Of Soul - is a musical documentary film released in 2021 and is the debut feature film for its director, musician and DJ Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. The film looks back at the Harlem Cultural Festival held in the summer of 1969, a hugely popular musical event that has been largely ignored in wider popular culture until now. The film features a variety of musical performances filmed at the time as well as interviews with some of the surviving performers and festival attendees. The film also examines the reasons why the footage was mostly ignored until recently. The film received near-universal praise from critics despite a limited theatrical run although the film was also released internationally via streaming services. It also won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
What's It About?
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of six concerts that took place in Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, New York over the summer of 1969. Hosted by local nightclub singer and festival director Tony Lawrence, the concerts saw a combined total of almost 300'000 attendees with security handled by members of the Black Panther Party in lieu of the New York Police department. Acts ranged from mainstream artists such as Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight & The Pips to blues legend BB King to gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers to more eclectic acts like Mongo Santamaria and Huge Masakela.
The festival was designed to demonstrate the cutural diversity of Harlem as well as serve as a distraction to the various issues plaguing the community such as the mis-use of drugs, inherent poverty and the wider issues of racism in America. Initially filmed by producer Hal Tulchin, the footage lay in a basement for over fifty years while efforts were made to distribute the film but with no success. The film explains that while Woodstock - which was held over the same summer period - became almost synonymous with the summer of '69, this festival (later marketed as the 'Black Woodstock') was overlooked by the general public who were also more interested in the forthcoming Moon landings.
The Fifth Dimension
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
The Staple Singers
Reverend Jesse Jackson & the Operation Breadbasket Band
Gladys Knight & the Pips
Release Date (UK)
16th July, 2021
What's to Like?
Summer of Soul is an absolute hammer-blow of a film. It contains so much energy, colour, passion and vibrancy that it overwhelms you - it feels as much of an event as the festival itself. The footage, which has been restored in exquisite detail, gives a powerful impression of what the festival was like as well as the political climate at the time. In fact, the wider context of the festival cannot be ignored - one year on from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and in the aftermath of angry riots against an inherently racist system, the festival seemingly marked a new definition of what it meant to be black in the US. Fashions and hairstyles demonstrate not just the time period but also the cultural identity on display, arguably the first time such expression became widespread.
The film's trump card, though, is its soundtrack which is just magnificent. It's so infectious and enjoyable, even if you have never heard of some of the acts or don't like the tunes. The performances are energetic and fuelled by the same anger and feeling that courses through the crowd who are soaking up every note from every vantage point imaginable. As a fan, I adored everything about Nina Simone's appearance - her hair and clothes are beautifully evocative of African culture and her powerful rallying cry to the crowd asking them "Are you ready, black people? Are you ready?" is spine-tingling. Despite being a white guy (some might say, very white!) from the UK, I felt just as passionate and enraged at the injustice of racism that sadly still persists today. How is it that so much time has passed since this cultural milestone and yet so little seems to have changed?
- The film is credited as "A Questlove Jawn". Questlove is originally from Philadelphia where the word 'jawn' is a local slang word meaning any person, place or thing.
- Although Hal Tulchin's footage had been lost and unseen in a basement since the festival itself, footage was broadcast on TV via hour-long specials shown on New York's WNEW-TV Metromedia Channel 5 - now known as WNYW. The highlight packages were broadcast each week at 10:30 pm every Saturday during the festival's duration.
- Stay tuned after the end credits as a bonus scene can be found featuring Stevie Wonder and his assistant sharing some banter on stage. Wonder, who was just nineteen at the time, can be seen on stage playing the piano and the drums with a high degree of skill, illustrating the superstar he would become in the Seventies.
What's Not to Like?
It's impossible to discuss the festival without also discussing the politics surrounding it. The film goes to great lengths to illustrate how African American people felt about the racism in society at the time, with some bemoaning the money spent on the Apollo 11 moon landings not being spent instead on alleviating problems within the community. There is also a great deal of anger bubbling beneath the surface with the threat of violent protests and talk of revolution hanging heavy in the air. This isn't surprising, given the danger that black community leaders like Dr King and Malcolm X found themselves in for speaking out. Unfortunately, it's also impossible to separate the problems seen back then from the current state of affairs with the US at the moment. The obvious and overt racist policies of the former President - the screaming Carrot Demon himself, Donald Trump - have left American society as divided and openly hostile towards the African American community (as well as other ethnic minorities) than ever before and in many ways, this film feels like the ultimate rebuttal of Cadet Bone Spurs. Depending on your political leaning, this might rub some viewers up the wrong way.
Personally, my only gripe with the film was that I wanted more of it. Tulchin filmed around forty hours worth of footage so there is more than enough to justify restoring and producing a follow-up with more of that fabulous music and spirit. It has to be worth considering, at least - I'm not much of a betting man but if Summer of Soul isn't in contention for some recognition from the Academy then an official soundtrack should be an essential purchase if one becomes available. This isn't just a celebration of cultural diversity and identity but it manages to revive a turning point that has been cruelly overlooked for all these years. This film deserves to be watched, recognised and celebrated by anyone with a love of music - if you can, go and watch it immediately.
Should I Watch It?
Summer of Soul is a simply incredible watch, expertly resurrecting an important but forgotten event that feels as timely and welcome now as it did back in 1969. With an amazing soundtrack that will sweep you up in its passion and fury, the documentary is a remarkable find - a genuine treasure chest that was buried for so long, containing riches far more enjoyable than a bottle of rum. But more than that, the film celebrates an entire culture and power that is still repressed today and acts as a wake-up call to everyone to stop standing by and letting this injustice keep happening. Wonderful stuff!
Great For: music lovers of all eras, children of the Sixties, black audiences,
Not So Great For: Republicans, the KKK, racist morons, anyone unable to stream it
What Else Should I Watch?
I love a good music documentary - there's something satisfying to me about learning what goes on away from the studio and how life and experience can influence the formation of some damn good tunes. For a similar experience to Summer of Soul then may I suggest Soul Power which focuses on a three-day festival in 1974 in Zaire alongside the legendary Rumble In The Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The festival hosted a similar blend of African and American artists such as James Brown, BB King, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba and TPOK Jazz. For viewers more suited to rock music, I'd suggest the excellent Sound City - directed by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, the documentary looks back at the iconic Sound City Studio in Los Angeles that hosted the recording of countless rock albums by the likes of Neil Young, Tom Petty, Nirvana, REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac, Joe Cocker and many more. The original soundtrack produced by Grohl and a number of fellow artists is worth a listen too.
Of course, any band worth their salt will have their own documentary that follows them for any length of time. The Beatles most recently popped up in Eight Days A Week which followed their chaotic tour of the US in the mid Sixties, a stark contrast to the slow disintegration of the band witnessed in their previous documentary Let It Be. One of my favourite acts, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, get a look back at the first thirty years of their career in the four-hour epic Runnin' Down A Dream while Nina Simone also has her own documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? which covers not just her musical career but her frequent battles with mental illness and her place in the civil rights movement of the late Sixties.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox