Review: Summer of Soul

Ahmir Questlove Thompson, the drummer of The Roots and the self-styled keeper of the flame of African-American music style and history, is ostensibly the director of this documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place over the course of six Sundays at Mount Morris Park in NYC in the summer of 1969. Except for those who actually attended the festival, most people didn’t know about it, despite the fact that it featured many of the most important soul, blues, and jazz acts of the day. One reason it has been neglected and/or forgotten is that Woodstock took place around the same time and the whole media fascination with hippie culture, not to mention the ad hoc immediacy of the festival itself, overshadowed any other music-oriented event that summer. In fact, one of the proposed titles for the documentary was “Black Woodstock,” and, in fact, a compelling part of the story of the film’s release is that the footage remained in the possession of the man who originally directed it in the belief that it would be made into a TV special. Hal Tulchin, who died in 2017, never got to see his dream come true, and to his credit Questlove pays fitting tribute to Tulchin’s legacy.

As such, the film is more than a series of lovingly shot, impeccably mixed musical performances. It is a chronicle of the state of Black consciousness at the time it was made. Questlove pays close attention, through interviews with people who were there and some who weren’t, to how the Civil Rights movement had evolved a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Harlem Cultural Festival was not just a means of celebrating Black culture; as the Rev. Al Sharpton says, it was also a way to keep people occupied and amused who might otherwise want to burn the whole thing down out of righteous anger. The point was to couch the entertainment in a forthright appeal to Black pride. In that regard it was not only a success, but a milestone in raising the profile of Black culture among the people who needed it the most, meaning Black folks themselves. 

The artists not only knew this about the festival, they embraced the attendant themes wholeheartedly. Certainly the most surprising act was The 5th Dimension, an all-Black vocal group who many in the audience had assumed were white because of their string of hits, which didn’t sound much like soul music. Their performance is riveting, not because they try to “act Black,” but because they are Black and love what they do, and they make the audience love it, too. 

One Sunday was dedicated completely to gospel music and emceed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who describes in heart-wrenching detail how he witnessed firsthand the death of Dr. King. The older people in the audience know this music, but most of the young folk (it should be noted that the festival was free and promoted for the whole family) were not as interested in the church but fully appreciated the energy that exploded from the stage when the Edwin Hawkins Singers ripped through “Oh Happy Day,” or when Mahalia Jackson sings Dr. King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord,” and invites the young Mavis Staples, who was there singing gospel and R&B with her family, to duet with her. The expressions on the faces, young and old, captured by Tulchin’s crew are priceless and indescribable.

That said, Summer of Soul is not as affecting as another recently excavated Black music documentary. Amazing Grace, which recorded Aretha Franklin’s brief return to gospel music at the height of her pop fame in 1971, is more personal and thus more emotionally fraught, but Summer of Soul has a higher energy level that feeds off its righteousness, from the joyful crossover Motown pop of Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips (the Pips’ performance here may qualify them as the greatest backup singers in the history of the universe); to the rocking blues of B.B. King; to the Latin beat of Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria; to the grooving jazz of Abbey Lincoln, Herbie Mann, and Roy Ayers; to the pure African sounds of Hugh Masekala; and finally to the politically charged protest music of Nina Simone, who reads a poem in which she asks if it’s OK to kill white people. But it’s perhaps Sly and the Family Stone, a group that, after all, was also a huge hit at Woodstock, that Questlove positions most prominently because of their mixture of male and female, black and white players (a whole five minutes is given over to the amazement in the audience that this hardcore funk machine is bedrocked by a white boy drummer). They take the film out on a truly high note. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Summer of Soul home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 20th Century Studios

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