Everybody knows Woodstock. Everybody has seen footage from it. The summer of 1969 brought another landmark musical event that is far less well known. The Harlem Cultural Festival attracted 30,000-40,000 residents for a series of concerts in the park. Many of the biggest names in soul music performed. Black pride politics were a fundamental theme of the event, which came in the wake of the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X assassinations. Although the fest was filmed, the reels sat in a basement for fifty years, largely unseen by the public. Now it's available for all, thanks to the documentary Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
Directed by The Roots' Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the movie features tons of footage. Among the artists shown are Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, and David Ruffin. Questlove is smart enough to allow full songs to play out, giving viewers the feeling that they've gone back in time and are attending. Roughly forty minutes in, I realized that I was tapping my foot. The music in Summer of Soul is obviously world-class and uplifting.
A number of the performers are interviewed to get their memories of the Harlem Cultural Festival. They discuss how promoter/host Tony Lawrence convinced the city to put on the show and got an A-list slate of stars to take part. That's enlightening, as is the way several participants are filmed watching themselves back in the day. One of the best scenes has Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. (formerly of The Fifth Dimension) emotionally react to seeing their group perform “Age of Aquarius” from the musical Hair. You can see from their expressions that being part of this concert meant the world to them.
What they and others are responding to is, as several put it, “the sea of Black faces” in the crowd. Nothing quite like the festival had ever existed. It brought people together to celebrate their pride during a time of overall racial unrest in the country, in addition to the senseless killing of important civil rights leaders. The Black community had a lot of reasons to be upset and nervous, politically and socially, in 1969. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a reprieve from that, a chance to 1.) have fun; and 2.) feel the sense of unity that was necessary to stay strong during those turbulent times in America.
Summer of Soul is an awesomely entertaining account of the festival. I can't imagine any music fan not being mesmerized by the powerful, jubilant performances contained in the film. Beyond that, it's also a movie as much for our current time as it is for 1969. The Black Lives Matter movement continues the work done by activists for racial equality fifty years ago. Artists like Janelle Monae, Kendrick Lamar, and H.E.R. use catchy music to address important social themes, just as Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone did back then. Movements require anthems, and the top R&B/soul artists of the day have been providing them for decades.
We always think of the late 1960s as a pivotal time in America for many reasons. A great deal of cultural, social, and political change went on. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a rousing look at the integral part music played in inspiring people to believe that change was indeed possible.
out of four
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.