Review: 'Summer of Soul' ( ... or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) - The Other Woodstock.
At the end of June 1969, about six weeks before the soon-to-be-famous Woodstock rock festival got underway in upstate New York, a somewhat smaller event called the Harlem Cultural Festival kicked off at a big municipal park down in New York City. This series of concerts, which was later said to have drawn some 300,000 people, was a celebration of Black music of several varieties, from B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips to Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, and Sly and the Family Stone. Producer Hal Tulchin filmed the whole thing, but most of the footage sat in storage for the next 50-odd years, unseen. Until now.
"Summer of Soul" is a historically resonant and sometimes thrilling documentary directed by author and Grammy-winning musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, of the Roots. The film captures a period in which American society was undergoing famously radical changes (Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the year before, and in the picture we hear one festival veteran remarking that "1969 was the pivotal year when the Negro died and the Black was born").
American music was changing, too, of course (when isn't it?). Sly Stone alone, writer and musician Greg Tate says here, was "such a game-changer on so many levels. He was a church guy, a conservatory student, a multi-instrumentalist and at the epicenter of the hippie-soul explosion." Much as they were in the Woodstock documentary, Sly and the Family Stone, with their racially and sexually integrated lineup, are fiercely commanding from the moment they take the festival stage (to do "Everyday People" and the then-recently released "I Want to Take You Higher"). And their leader's overflowing charisma is a sad reminder of how much was lost when he subsequently disappeared into a fog of drugs.
Since many of the songs featured in the movie now stand as classics of one sort or another, there are no really dull moments. In gospel segments, the Staple Singers return effortlessly to their sanctified roots. Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson for a soaring duet on "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," and the Edwin Hawkins Singers reprise their surprise 1967 pop hit, "Oh Happy Day." There's also Stevie Wonder, slim and natty in a chocolate-brown suit and yellow ruffled shirt, tearing into an unexpected drum solo and then a smashingly syncopated piano improvisation. (At another point he says, "I never was told to let fear put my dreams to sleep.") Latin-jazz man Mongo Santamaria contributes a bit of his version of "Watermelon Man," and Gladys Knight and the Pips turn their chart-topping "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" into an exercise in slinky Motown stage choreography. Also on hand are the Fifth Dimension, purveyors of slick suburban soul, whom the film gives a generous amount of room for their bifurcated "Hair" hit, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."
The movie goes out on a high, with Nina Simone's powerful reading of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" -- a performance that shows Simone at her most magisterial (or maybe haughty, depending on your view of her), and it's a great piece of footage to add to her visual record.
Surely, most of the people drawn to the Harlem Cultural Festival came for the music. But there was another attraction as well. One attendee, looking back on the event from a distance of more than 50 years, remembers what most struck him at the time. "As far as I could see, it was just Black people," he says. "This was the first time I'd ever seen so many of us."
"Summer of Soul" is now playing in theaters and on Hulu.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.