History is a funny thing, in that it takes blood, sweat and tears to sometimes set the record straight. We know what we are taught, and we don't know what we're not told about. And in some cases, history is simply lost to the winds of time.
Thank goodness then, for Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the prolific musician and frontman for the hip hop band "the Roots." He's the man responsible for preserving the memory of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a massive celebration of music, heritage, culture and Black Pride, that took course over six days spread out over the Summer of 1969. Questlove directs "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" and in doing so, he has not only preserved an important piece of history, but he's unearthed a treasure trove of clips that will live on forever.
There was another famous music festival in the Summer of 1969 that maybe you've heard of...it was called Woodstock. The Harlem Cultural Festival (HCF) - sometimes referred to as "Black Woodstock" - was founded by night club singer Tony Lawrence, who also hosted the event. The HCF took place in Mt. Morris Park in the heart of Harlem, NY, with an estimated 300,000 people - men, women and children - attending.
It featured musical performances by what was then and now a legendary line-up of talent: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Chuck Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Fifth Dimension, Abby Lincoln, Max Roach, David Ruffin and The Staples Sisters, to name a few. Jesse Jackson was there, as was New York Mayor, John V. Lindsay.
The entirety of the HCF was recorded, but the footage pretty much never saw the light of day on a broad scale. Those that were there remember it well. But for newer generations watching for the first time, the importance cannot be overstated.
Questlove - in this, his directorial debut - has made "Summer of Soul" not just a remembrance of an important, forgotten cultural event, but he makes sure that context is king. Yes, in many ways this can be considered a "concert film," but it is much more than that in how Questlove decides to structure it. Each act, each performance, is given a bit of history or some sort of background, with those that were there (The Fifth Dimension stars Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are interviewed, as are surviving members of some of the acts) and those that were influenced (like Lin-Manuel Miranda and other contemporary performers).
While the headline acts are given their due, Questlove also touches on other important facts, like how NY Police refused to provide security (security was provided by the Black Panther Party). and some of the reasons as to why the HCF wasn't given its proper due next to Woodstock (hmmm I wonder). He seems determined to not only remember, but to understand the purpose and the lasting legacy of the HCF.
The beauty of "Summer of Soul" is multi-faceted: The music and the performances feel unlocked from a time capsule. The history and the stories are beyond fascinating. Best of all, the entire story of the HCF is relevant today, perhaps more than ever.
This is one of the best films of the year, let alone documentary films, and here's hoping its light can shine on you.
Genre: Music, Documentary.
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes.
Featuring: Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, David Ruffin.
Directed by Questlove (feature directorial debut)
"Summer of Soul" is in theaters and on Hulu and Onyx Collective on Friday, July 2nd, 2021.
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