Premiere tonight at the semi-virtual Sundance Film Festival, Summer Of Soul (… or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised) is both an exhilarating and boring experience.
Unearthing a 1969 Black America cultural sarcophagus, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s skillful directorial debut is replete with triumphant performances by some of the greatest musicians of that era and all others.
It’s a living, hidden story that you need to hear and know, as Gladys Knight says in the documentary, “It wasn’t just about music.”
Completed during the Covid-19 crisis, the Summer of the soul travels through time and memory with seated interviews with people who were part of the 300,000 spectators or who were on stage. Yet like a previous Sundance opening night documentary, 2015 What happened to Miss Simone? (which actually contains about 30 seconds of footage from 1969), the brutal reality of oppression and discrimination of that time also cripples black America today.
‘Summer Of Soul’ Director Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson On Lost ‘Black Woodstock’ & Cultural Erasure – Sundance Studio
A blow which is intensified by the pandemic which has left such mass gatherings with a memory almost as distant as the long summer Harlem Cultural Festival of half a century ago.
In this, we find the real backbeat of the film and the skillful weaving that only drummer and musicologist The Roots could perhaps bring to the concert.
Fortunately, using a mere handful of aesthetic tropes and primarily exploring the material and its heritage, Thompson displays a steel-drum confidence with subject matter and mood. A sure side that his depth of experience as a musician and music historian offers regardless of the lack of a long career behind the camera – or perhaps despite it.
From almost forgotten images that have literally sat in a basement for decades, nominee for the American Documentary Competition category Summer of the soul takes you on this special celebration of black excellence and pride in the country’s largest city. It also dives into the space between the notes to give voice to the battle against a system of punishment and the well-established application of cultural erasure. In moment and in memory, the film blends both party and fervor with royal poise when a crowd capturing Nina Simone arrives on stage to conjure a rendition of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”
On one level, Summer of the soul looks like a Wattstax mixtape from 1972, 2005 Block Party by Dave Chappelle (who had Questlove and The Roots on stage in Brooklyn) and Tonight’s show The house group’s annual roots picnic in 2008 in Philadelphia. Yet the point is that on the weekend between June 29 and August 24, 1969 in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, the extravagance that some later called “Black Woodstock” predated all of these imitators and in fact began before the Woodstock, much more famous, which worries. summer.
In fact, Sly and the Family Stone did a double job that summer with appearances at both the Harlem Cultural Festival and the shindig August 15-18 at a dairy farm in upstate New York. As Sly himself coaxed the New York crowd to stop trying to be so cool and get into the groove, the gender and race-integrated group of gender breakers put on a show in Summer of Soul giving her highly acclaimed early morning appearance at Woodstock a repeat. .
The Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Nina Simone aren’t the only ones to throw showstoppers in Summer of Soul.
With the footage thankfully avoiding the extreme close-ups that characterized the filmed gigs of the era, Stevie Wonder (with a stump behind the drums right after the jump), Max Roach, Abby Lincoln and Hugh Masekela of South Africa are all perfectly focused. . The 5th Dimension, BB King, the extraordinary percussionist Ray Barretto, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr and jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, among others, are also present in all their glory. A moment of true transcendence occurs when Mahalia Jackson calls on the Staples Sisters’ Mavis Staples to join her in a rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” that could convert almost any atheist to faith in her beauty.
Taking place around a year after the death of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and with Neil Armstrong set to walk on the moon, there is also a very strong political presence with people like Jesse Jackson on stage and the Black Panthers. ensuring the security of the festival partially funded by citizens.
In the harsh realities of capitalism and racism, television producer Hal Tulchin’s efforts to find a home for the hours of footage he shot of the Harlem Culture Festival were going nowhere quickly. Although it was shown in pieces on local television in the summer of 69, in just a few short years the festival itself and its stellar line-up had grown as old as NASA’s soon-to-be Apollo Project. to be closed.
If you are willing to accept that history is written by victors, that is how the Churchillian expression is expressed. Then you also have to admit that the story is reassessed and revealed by the persistent. And, to paraphrase another well-quoted slice of verse, the Harlem Culture Festival is not going on quietly now.
Which, in this context, is another way of saying, if at least a streamer or two aren’t already making a strong bid on the Summer of the soul after the recently concluded Sundance online screening tonight, they need more broadband, across the board.
Maybe the best block party we’ve had or will have in months, Summer of the soul is a film for the moment both about the toxicity of American racism and dancing to the power of endurance. Or as Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” says: “the sound is there to help you groove”.
Summer of Soul is produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel with Radical Media, Vulcan Productions, Concordia Studio, Play / Action Pictures, LarryBilly Productions, Mass Distraction Media.