Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (12A)
Film Name: Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (12A)
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Runtime: 117 minutes
Cast: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension,
Synopsis: In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary—part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.
This compelling new documentary captures a remarkable weekend of music and politics at the Harlem Cultural Festival in July 1969. Filmmaker Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson [who is also a musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist and an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University] brings to light never-before-seen footage of The Harlem Cultural Festival in Summer of Soul. Part music film, part historical documentary, the feature chronicles the spectacular sound and atmosphere of the show whose outstanding line-up included Gladys Knight, BB King, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
Deftly interweaving incredible live footage with a series of revealing interviews, Summer of Soul captures the spirit and context of a watershed moment while tying it firmly to the present and putting it into context.
Nicknamed ‘Black Woodstock’ – happening just one hundred miles south of Woodstock – the joyous six weeks celebration was filling a New York park with black history, culture and fashion. It took place at a pivotal moment in US history. All of which will make the viewer wonder: why have we never heard of it before?
The key reason is because this film footage languished unseen in a basement for the past fifty years. But the omission also points to cinema’s role in writing pop-cultural history, and how few Black hands had access to those levers of media power. Hence Summer of Soul’s subtitle: … Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.
In 1969, vast socio-political headwinds swirling around the country came to Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. During the 60s, Americans witnessed the Vietnam War, a rising drug epidemic, and the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Only a year earlier, in the summer of 1968, parts of New York City went up in flames following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. While the film focuses on performances, Summer of Soul uses past footage as a catapult for real-time change and reflection.
The Apollo 11 moon landing occurred on July 20, the same day Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips took to the stage. But the crowd at the Harlem Cultural Festival was largely ambivalent to the news. “That was the very first eyebrow raise. It was the initial spark to say, ‘hey guys. I think there’s a bigger story here than just a concert going on,’” recalls Thompson. “We asked ourselves whether we’d get penalized if we showed less music performances in order to investigate the background of what was happening here. Because that’s something that I don’t think the world knows about. The moon landing discovery was the very first thread that put everything in perspective for us.”
A 19-years old Stevie Wonder gets the party going singing some hits while playing his keyboard and even a solid drum solo. There follows a breathless number of outstanding performers: the Chambers Brothers; BB King, wearing a gorgeous periwinkle blue suit; the 5th Dimension explain how they met the producers of Hair after the lead singer’s wallet was found by one of the latter in a cab. Fifty years later, the singers are thrilled to watch their old footage for the first time and throughout Thompson continues to keep the camera rolling on various subjects that attended while they watch the recovered footage.
The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone (dressed in psychedelic purple glasses, matching outfit, and a large gold chain), Hugh Masakela, and finally the peerless Nina Simone who closes with a commanding act including a sensational call to revolution with “Are You Ready?”.
This incredible documentary features some great performances from some of the most famous jazz, soul, blues and gospel performers from the 1960s. The mixing of never-before-seen archive footage with interviews from the musicians and attendees gives Summer of Soul a raw and authentic feel, transporting the viewer into a turbulent era marked by the Civil Rights Movement and some of the most legendary and everlasting music ever created.
It wasn’t just about the music; we wanted progress,” says Gladys Knight in this unmissable film.
Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures