Jul 02, 2021
By Lily Moayeri
Photography by Searchlight Pictures
The year is 1969. It’s summer in New York. A multiple-day music festival is happening featuring some of the most iconic artists of all time. There are hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. That sounds like Woodstock. Those same characteristics could be used to describe the Harlem Culture Festival, which is the focus of the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the winner of this year’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, and the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
The Harlem Culture Festival was a series of six free outdoor events that happened between June 29th and August 24th 1969 at Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now known as Marcus Garvey Park). It took place a mere 100 miles away from Woodstock, which, coincided with the same weekend as the fifth event of the Harlem Culture Festival. This is also why the festival was sometimes referred to as “Black Woodstock.”
The brainchild of Tony Lawrence, a local promoter and natural emcee, the events drew a purported total of 300,000 attendees, and were an antidote to the racial unrest and riots of the previous summer. Positioned as an outlet for the emotions that were heightened after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the ensuant cultural and political upheavals, the concert series had the backing of the New York City’s Parks Department, its forward-thinking mayor, John Lindsey, and were bolstered security courtesy of the Black Panthers.
Summer of Soul is based on stellar footage of the Harlem Culture Festival expertly shot by the late producer/director Hal Tulchin. Five cameras capture up-close and wide-ranging shots. These are not only of performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly and the Family stone, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and the Staples Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, and the 5th Dimension, but also a seemingly endless number of attendees whose good vibes are palpable through the screen.
The narrative around Summer of Soul is that these invaluable historical reels have been languishing in a basement for the last 50 years. An article in Smithsonian Magazine from February 1, 2007 reports that documentarian and music historian Joe Lauro of Historic Film Archives discovered this footage, which aired in hour-long specials on CBS and ABC at the time of the festival. Additionally, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, “A local New York TV station broadcast highlights every Sunday night throughout the festival back in ’69.” Lauro was working alongside the award-winning team of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville to shape this footage into a documentary about the festival. What came of their efforts is unclear, but their enthusiasm for the project is shared in Summer of Soul.
The film spends as much time putting the concerts in context as it does on the concert itself—perhaps more. It is bookended by charged archival footage of the racially-propelled movements of the time and interspersed with talking heads interviews with three distinct groups of individuals. Present day conversations with performers at the festival such as Gladys Knight, Jesse Jackson, and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. of The 5th Dimension—the latter of which is particularly emotional as they watch their own performance. There are also interviews with the likes of Chris Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda opining about the festival against the backdrop of the time, and with New York Times journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, whose racial battles are force-tied to the festival. But the best of these interviews is with actual attendees of the festival who have perfect recall of everything related to it: what they wore, what smells it had, what it felt like. They recounting brings the specialness of the festival to the viewer in a way that transfers the experience across time and space.
The real value of Summer of Soul is the footage from the Harlem Culture Festival. This is over 40 hours of wide-ranging representation of Black music from gospel and R&B to soul, blues, jazz, Latin and African sounds. Stevie Wonder shredding on the drums. Gladys Knight looking like a teenager and walking off stage with her Black Power fist held high. Nine Simone—the person for whom the term “slay queen” should have been coined—commanding the stage, the musicians and the audience in her ferocious way. Mavis Staples joining Mahalia Jackson for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach musically interlocked. Ray Barreto bringing his Afro-Cuban flair to the event. Hugh Masekela’s inimitable South African stylings. Not to mention the orations from the cultural figures like Jesse Jackson, the comedy of Moms Mabley (recently spotlighted on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and the classic ventriloquist act of Willie Tyler and Lester.
The real shame is how little of it is actually seen in Summer of Soul. There is no more than a song from each artist, barring Simone who has a bit more airtime. Instead, there is a lot of commentary on the sparse performances included to put them in the context of the time. With footage of this high quality, both audio and video, the story is told through the concert. There is no need for the interminable spelling out of the historical backdrop of the festival that takes up so much of the 117 minutes of the film’s runtime.
It’s these very performances that likely held up this priceless footage for so long. The legalities of being able to use these songs besides being extensive, are cost-prohibitive. But if at any point there can be a longform concert film of Harlem Culture Festival, jockey hard for a first-row spot. In the meantime, stick around until after the credits of Summer of Soul to watch Wonder show his sassy side bantering with his handler as the rain comes down on the happy (and oh so lucky) crowd at the park. (www.watchsummerofsoul.com)
Author rating: 6.5/10
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