Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the ultimate time capsule to a moment in history. Seamlessly showcasing the period, be it with music, politics, or when both combined to deliver powerful messages. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has produced such a memorable film. Many documentaries and films are a must-watch, yet somehow this one stands out that bit more—a glorious success.
For six weeks in the summer of 1969, just 100 miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). It was an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. After that summer, the footage was never seen and largely forgotten – until now.
What staggers is not only how much footage was left to be forgotten forever, but why it was. Such an event like this should have happened more but should have been known as the biggest of festivals worldwide. To have such musical talents present for six Sundays and have powerful and meaningful messages spread for it all to disappear for 50 years is unthinkable.
While there is a lot of joy and fond memories being shared within Summer of Soul, and believe me, that energised alluring joy sweeps you up with it. There is also a palpable sense of frustration present, especially at the end of the documentary, as the feeling of losing the special spark created there due to the heavy suppression. As stated within the documentary, Woodstock was the same year, yet for organisers, there was no way to push out what was going on in Mount Morris Park that summer.
Due to the sheer scope of the documentary, Thompson doesn’t have time to linger for too long on each set, no matter how much you would be desperate for him too. Equally, when more well-known talking heads give their opinions, he knows exactly how to utilise them, and none ever overstays their welcome. This causes an innumerable amount of highlights of the festival footage itself, though perhaps it is Nina Simone’s ‘Backlash Blues’ and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ that strike and stay with you more. Though as with the Harlem Cultural Festival, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Joshua L. Pearson’s editing helps Summer of Soul stand out even further; the seamless integration of the interviews to the festival footage and music is exemplary. From the opening with 19-year-old Stevie Wonder and his drum solo to the switches of the musicians watching their set to the more political moments with Rev Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. It moves along so smoothly that you are easily reeled in immediately; as stated, it sweeps you up. It carries you along, so when the entertaining elements are stripped back a tad to reveal that frustration of how needless things were for Black people, that it grabs you all the more.
It is the small moments within the documentary that alert you to the importance of this festival at the time and the documentary now, moments like one of the news pieces documenting the festival. Instead of discussing how great the festival is and what it could mean for those from Harlem and attending, a derisory tone is given to the attendees as that same day the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. The tone used by the broadcasters to highlight and ask why they think the festival is more important to them is saddening.
A negative skew seems to be presented into how they spoke about it, and if it weren’t for the excellent responses from those interviewed at the time, it would have only come across that way to television audiences. Poverty and reality to the difficulties of living in such an oppressed place were so prevalent. As the white news stations speak up about the moon landing, the focus on black news was the true crisis happening on America’s soil. An excellent line is said herein: “69 was the pivotal year where the Negro died, and Black was born”. It says so much with so few words, and as the final act veers towards the importance of using this term within the black community.
Yet, for all of the politics rightfully brought into the documentary, it is the power and emotion of the music that strikes you. With Harlem being as culturally mixed as it was at the time, we see the influences of that in each of the highlighted musician’s sets. Black, Cuban and Puerto Rican (to name but a few) merge to create this special connection. Maybe it is due to Thompson’s music background that he can pick up on these moments, but mixing power songwriting and signing with the over the top solo’s from the acts allows for such an extra appreciation to form.
The true and only negative of Summer of Soul is that it is just under 2 hours in length; this is a piece that needs to be a mini-series broken down into each segment that Thompson has here. There is enough footage and discussions to last hours at a time. Yet if this all we get the length, then we can revel at how spectacular it is. Though, boy, would it be fantastic if it were so much longer as this is a documentary that captivates you the entire way you are hungry for more. Perhaps that was the aim, to then have the viewer dart off and research and consume as much information and archival footage as possible.
With hope, the entire footage of those six weeks will be pieced together for audiences to consume as the importance of that third Harlem Cultural Festival should never be forgotten again, and thank goodness that it has finally gotten its chance to shine. An utter success of a documentary.
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is showing today only at the Sheff Doc Festival for only £5 here.
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