Summer of Soul

This documentary features exhilarating ‘lost’ performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival: Stevie Wonder dazzles on drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples take it to church; Nina Simone presides like a radical African princess; Sly & the Family Stone steal the show and leave us on a high. The cameras capture the party atmosphere, the excited faces of a joyous multi-aged crowd embracing Black culture.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is an uplifting treat for music fans and a fascinating piece of Black history. But why has it taken 50 years for this treasure-trove to see the light of day? It seems baffling that original producer Hal Tulchin was unable to sell his work to American TV networks. Instead, over 40 hours of videotape languished in a basement until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was approached to take on the responsibility of ‘correcting history.’

Commentators point to this so-called ‘Black Woodstock’ being overshadowed by its bigger, whiter upstate rival in the summer of 69. Perhaps Woodstock caught the mainstream hippy counter-culture zeitgeist in a way that Harlem, with its ‘older’ gospel, Motown and pop acts failed to do. For this reason, it might have been less marketable. Or perhaps political conservatism and racism informed this rejection. Either way, Summer of Soul makes for more compelling and eclectic viewing than much of the tedious Woodstock.

Director Questlove interweaves the music with late 60s American news footage, together with eyewitness accounts and the thoughts of cultural historians to give it context. In the summer of 1969 Harlem was the place to be, a‘safe and happy creative forest,’ in which 300,000 locals attended the free Festival. But it also had a heroin epidemic and a problem with the white establishment (‘it felt like the system had let us down’). The moon landings that amazed the world were not universally celebrated here: some felt the money could have been better spent getting rid of poverty.

As heralded here by a militant Nina Simone (‘Are you ready to smash white things?) and the ‘freedom music’ of African artists such as Hugh Masekela, a revolution in Black consciousness was coming: ‘1969 was the year when the negro died and Black was born.’

Times might have been a-changin’, but in Summer of Soul gospel continues to provide release and catharsis, the ‘therapy for being Black in America.’ Some of the most memorable performances and crowd reactions are inspired by gospel singers such as Clara Walker and Dorothy Moore. A duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples erupts into a volcano of passion, as each tries to outdo the other in raw-throated testifying.

Image-conscious viewers will contrast gap-toothed Jackson’s make-up with the perfect teeth and sheen of a modern-day Gladys Knight looking back on her own contribution. Elsewhere hot pink gowns and dayglo orange-yellow suits and ruffled shirts brighten the stage. ‘We were suit and tie guys,’ says someone. ‘Then we saw Sly.’

The threads and funk of Sly & the Family Stone take us into psychedelic colour. They get the loudest crowd reaction, providing melting pot good vibes with Everyday People and Higher. The sound is excellent – crisp and integrated, with irresistible drumming (‘The white guy is the drummer? He’s not supposed to be able to do that’). Proto-Prince Sly leaves us on a high, after post-gig monochrome pics of a litter-strewn Park.

‘Nobody was interested in a Black show,’ says one of the film’s talking heads. ‘It felt like they threw it away.’ With Summer of Soul Questlove has reclaimed and restored a remarkable piece of history and given it back to the people.