Every boomer-era music festival and record album has been mythologized, eulogized, really, euthanized to the point where the mere mention of Woodstock induces me into the kind of catatonic stupor that even Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying “Star-Spangled Banner” couldn’t begin to rouse me from now.
This unrelenting nostalgia makes Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new documentary, “Summer of Soul,” all the more astonishing. For six weeks in the summer of 1969, the same summer as Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival was headlined by artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach.
An estimated 300,000 people, mostly Black locals, attended the concerts staged in part as a way to provide healing, unity and release a year after Martin Luther King’s assassination had convulsed Harlem. The event was filmed to spectacular effect but, we’re told, “the footage sat in a basement for 50 years” because there was no interest in a “Black Woodstock.”
“Nobody ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival,” says Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., a Black Panther who was part of the security detail at the event. “Nobody would believe it happened.”
“Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” offers glorious proof showcasing the music, offering a thought-provoking history lesson about the Black cultural and political transformation taking place outside the festival and presenting a rejoinder to anyone still oblivious to the ways that history celebrates certain achievements while roundly ignoring other equally important stories.
You may know Thompson as a member of the Roots and as the musical director for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” If you’ve read his book, “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove,” you’re aware that he’s also inquisitive and a first-rate music geek, making him the perfect person to crate-dig through the musical and cultural history documented in this film.
His respect and enthusiasm for the material jumps off the screen. “Summer of Soul” won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s difficult to quantify the elation produced at a virtual event, but let’s just say it made people happy at a time when we needed a little sunshine in our lives.
Musically, there’s something for everyone, ranging from Motown hits to the sunny pop-soul of the 5th Dimension. There are jams from the likes of South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and conga drum master Ray Barretto.
There’s Mavis Staples thrilling at the chance to sing the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” with gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Jesse Jackson introduced the latter song, recalling it was Martin Luther King’s favorite and how the civil rights activist mentioned it moments before he was slain.
“It was just an unreal moment for me,” Staples recalls of performing the hymn with her idol for an audience comprising tens of thousands of Black people, an extraordinary gathering. Their rendition is charged and cathartic. Between the context and the raw power of the performance, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And, frankly, it’s stunning that no one else had seen it, outside of those who witnessed it, until “Summer of Soul.”
And even some of the people who were there have had trouble believing they saw it. The film features interviews with Staples, Jackson and other well-known figures, but the most beautiful moments come from attendees watching the footage of an event that they thought might have been too good to be true.
“You put memories away, and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real,” says Musa Jackson, wiping away tears as he talks to an off-camera Thompson. “So it’s almost confirmation that what I knew was real. I knew I was not crazy, brother. But now I know I’m not. And this is just confirmation, and not only that … but how beautiful it was.”
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