Editor’s Note: this review was first posted as part of Third Coast Review’s Sundance Film Festival coverage.
Starting my 2021 Sundance Film Festival off exactly how I needed to: with a party. Marking the feature directing debut from Roots drummer and “Tonight Show” music director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul pieces together footage that has been sitting in a basement for more than 50 years from the Harlem Cultural Festival, circa 1969, an event meant to unite a community only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to the many cultures and influences that made Harlem so special at the time. But Thompson does more than edit together a concert film featuring such dignitaries as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and even the 5th Dimension; he also places the various music styles (R&B, gospel, Afro-Cuban jazz, blues, and funk) in the context of the times, and makes the point that the event was a huge factor in radicalizing Harlem and the musicians that played the summer concert series.
Summer of Soul is just one highlight moment after another, accented with new interviews with both surviving performers and several of the more than 300,000 people who attended the concerts over that transformative summer, which was meant to both entertain and provide a history of Black music, culture, fashion and messaging. There are many standout moments, but the one that took my breath away was a rare performance of “Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson and Chicago’s own Mavis Staples. The energy of the Sly and the Family Stone’s performance is unlike anything else, and even more than the band’s showcase at Woodstock (which took place the same year, but got far more publicity) illustrates the influence his brand of funk had on an entire generation of musicians. Someone describes Nina Simone’s set as both joyful and mournful, and they couldn’t be more right—tears of either persuasion would be totally appropriate while watching her.
The most shocking moment in the documentary comes near the end when it’s revealed that the reason no one had seen or used this footage in more than 50 years is because no studio or television network wanted it because it was “too black.” Perhaps mainstream entertainment hubs were nervous about projecting such positive and proud images of Black people, but I can only imagine how much the rest of the country at the time—still very much steeped in the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and a re-evaluation of the lengths non-white people would go to to achieve equality—would have reacted to seeing a sea of Black faces in Harlem so thrilled to be at the center of such a celebration. I really do hope Summer of Soul makes it to theaters at some point this year, so that I can hear this transformative music blasting through a righteous sound system.
Summer of Soul is now in theaters.
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