Summer of Soul July 8, 2021
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
ummer of Soul, a new documentary on Hulu, circles around the one-off Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, hosted by the gregarious impresario Tony Lawrence and championed by liberal Republican (?) New York City mayor John V. Lindsay. When you see the movie’s footage from this live music series, which commenced the last week of June and continued on Sundays for the next six weeks, you’re as
astounded as you are angered. Guest stars included Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and others. Yet almost all of the footage has gone unseen — the notable exceptions being subsequent hour-long specials on ABC and CBS and Simone’s performance — ever since the series concluded, until now.
As Hal Tulchin, the TV producer who spearheaded efforts to document all the festival’s shows some 50 years ago, puts it, nobody wanted to buy the recordings when he tried selling them. Despite its roundelay of storied participating acts, and despite the fact that 300,000 people cumulatively attended the 40 hours of events, the Harlem Cultural Festival was entirely overshadowed by Woodstock, happening just about 100 miles away. (Even trying to pitch it as “the Black Woodstock,” Tulchin says, was ineffective; white distributors simply weren’t interested in disseminating Black art en masse, and felt anyway that the public couldn’t appreciate two totemic music festivals at once in a commercially satisfactory way.) Tulchin again tried releasing the footage in 2004, which didn't work out; he died in 2017.
More than 50 years later, Tulchin gets a torchbearer in the Roots’ Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who directed Summer of Soul. Thompson doesn’t purely offer the concerts as they happened, in the efficient highlights-reel style employed by Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1970), for instance. The gorgeously restored live footage is bookended with observations and sometimes commentated on in real time by attendees and the artists themselves, including Wonder, Knight, and Staples. It can be pretty emotional watching these musicians react to the footage as they’re watching along with us. It’s one thing, as a viewer, to be wowed by never-seen footage; it’s quite another to think one of your major artistic accomplishments was undocumented for five decades only to have that, almost out of nowhere, be corrected. Thompson also elaborates, via talking heads like Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (who orated at the festival himself), on the cultural moment into which the events fell, and how they functioned as both a respite and marks of a shifting culture, evidenced in one way by the intermixture of classic and up-and-coming musical acts.
There isn’t a person who speaks of the concert in less than game-changing terms. Mavis Staples still talks jubilantly of duetting with Jackson in a tribute to the late Martin Luther King, Jr. (this also might be the movie’s most transcendent clip); Knight continues to look at the festival as a gathering that wasn’t just about music, but cultural progress. With tears in her eyes, the 5th Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo recounts how much it meant to her to play at the festival at the time. The 5th Dimension, she remembers with still-palpable hurt, was often spoken about as if they were “too white,” and it was at the festival where the group both sought and felt like they had found respect and appreciation. “That’s the summer we became free — from our parents,” says concertgoer Dorinda Drake, who lived about 10 blocks away from the series’ Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) homebase, with a laugh. Another attendee, Musa Jackson, cries at the end of the movie, overwhelmed by the decisive confirmation that his mind wasn’t exaggerating how spectacular everything was.
If Summer of Soul (which is the most joyous movie I’ve seen this year) has a weakness, it’s Thompson’s insistence on interrupting several performances with comments snipped from talking-head interviews. Sometimes they can be illuminating, but mostly they’re unproductive and distracting. The last thing I want to see, right when Wonder is tearing into a rapturous keyboard solo, is Chris Rock talking about how much of a genius Wonder is. Yes, I agree with that classification. But why do I have to stop taking that genius in for someone else’s obvious assessment? This recurrent problem might be less of an annoying
interruption if the festival footage was easier to come by. But since it’s so rare and exhilarating, you want nothing more than to really savor these performances. Thompson understandably wants to keep the overarching narrative moving, but he also doesn’t appear to think much about how transfixing the performances are.
Ideally, Thompson releases a more Monterey Pop-style cut of the documentary down the line to supplement the version that currently stands — a more conventionally concert-oriented feature that simulates the sensation of being an audience member, where no outside disruptions can cut short the trance-like sensation of being at a particularly sublime concert. In any case, though, a movie like Summer of Soul — released at a time where live music, after a year-long pause, seems like it will plausibly be back in full force soon enough — is a happy occasion. Like any great concert, you head home from Summer of Soul
clinging to any residual bliss. A-