Review: Summer of Soul (2021)

1969. Thousands gather peacefully to hear the music they love performed by some of the record industry's boldest and brightest talents, as well as to celebrate a sense of community and pride in who they are, where they have come from, and most importantly, where they are going. But the venue is not Woodstock, it's the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week, summer-long concert series that celebrated African American music, culture, and pride. 

Part documentary, part concert film, Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) uses bold visuals and powerful music to take us back over 50 years ago to a music festival that has been largely forgotten by history. There are no multi-record collections, no box sets of the wonderful music performed and captured during the performances. As the film shows through new interview footage featuring those who were there--both in the audience and on the stage--many who were in attendance had begun to wonder if the event was as powerful as their fading memories would have them believe. 

It was. 

Throughout the film, we're treated to scintillating live performances from Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, The Temptations' David Ruffin, Nina Simone, a blistering set from Sly and the Family Stone, plus many others. 

The question that the documentary seeks to answer: why was this incredible musical event, often called "the Black Woodstock," which saw hundreds of thousands in attendance and featured some of the biggest legends of the music industry, overlooked and then forgotten by history? 

Summer of Soul marks the feature directorial debut of Questlove as well as the first time much of this footage has been seen since it was first captured over half-a-century ago. The footage itself has been miraculously restored in high definition from the video tape masters that sat in a basement for 50 years, and in many ways looks and feels as if it were shot yesterday. The images have power and immediacy, the message itself angry, hopeful, and beautiful in equal measure. Though five decades have passed, in many ways, Summer of Soul feels like a look at the world we live in right now. The income gap, government spending on trips into outer space while thousands go hungry here at home, distrust in authority figures, but hope--always hope--at a brighter tomorrow, though little agreement on how to best make that tomorrow a reality. The line between yesterday and today has never been thinner. 

The documentary is a powerful document of an era that we're living all over again, filled with messages and music from voices that will not be silent. For those of us who consider 1969 to be a pivotal year in blending soul, funk, rock, psychedelia, jazz, gospel and blues into one auditory stew, the film is a goldmine. Here's hoping this attention on the Harlem Cultural Festival and the music made there further opens the door not just to getting these live performances into circulation, but more importantly, adds this festival to the short list of the most important musical and cultural events of the 20th century. 

Summer of Soul is currently in theaters and streaming on Hulu. 



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