If you have any affection for the music of the late ’60s, you will want to watch Summer of Soul. The great bulk of the film was found footage — some 40 hours of film that had been sitting in the basement of Hal Tulchin who was responsible for recording the six concerts of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The festival took place over six Sundays that summer in a relatively small park in the middle of Harlem, New York City. Each week covered a different kind of music ranging from Soul to Gospel to Blues, Caribbean, and Jazz. Over the six concerts the total attendance was estimated at more than 300,000.
For a while, the concert series was promoted as the Black Woodstock, mimicking the more famous concert that was held just one weekend in a town 100 miles upstate that same summer. But Black Woodstock did not resonate with the world like the hippy-fest further north. Tulchin tried for years to turn his film footage into a concert video, but, as with so many things beautifully Black, no-one thought it was worth the effort. Until Questlove, an accomplished musician in his own right, found it after nearly 50 years. Frankly, it is amazing that the video and sound recordings have survived as well as they have.
The concert footage is the core of this film and is the main reason to watch it. The assemblage of black musical talent is nothing short of amazing. Remember that this was 1969 when many of these performers were already hit recording artists and so being able to attract them to perform on a hot summer stage in the middle of Harlem, for probably a piddling sum of money, has to be considered a testament to how valuable they believed the venue was and how important it was that they be there.
The list of performers, just in the film, includes Stevie Wonder, The Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, Herbie Mann, the 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone. It is difficult to be a child of the ’60s and not have one or more of these names on your playlist, even today. And their songs are the top hits, too, performed with energy and belief — the performances, one after another, are nothing short of miraculous.
All of them were good, but some were astounding. There is a gospel duet with Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson that was not planned before the concert. Even if you aren’t into gospel, this performance ranks as an amazing partnership of two incredible voices.The 5th Dimension does a wonderful version of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In that was their attempt to reaffirm their roots in the Black community. Gladys Knight and the Pips do I Heard it Through the Grapevine, and David Ruffin (formerly with the Temptations) does a stylistic interpretation of My Girl that will blow your socks off. Simply put, the music never stops.
But Summer of Soul isn’t just a replay of found concert footage — it is so much more. What Questlove did is find many of these artists, political figures, and attendees that were there at the concerts, brought them to his studio and sat them down to watch these sequences. None of them had ever seen this footage before and then, suddenly, they were seeing themselves 50 years ago. Marilyn McCoo (the 5th Dimension), Jesse Jackson, Gladys Knight and even an attendee remark on how the concerts had an impact on them.
The talking heads never outshine the music. In fact, frequently, their words are fading out as the music fades in. Questlove seems to achieve a near-perfect balance between musical entertainment and a good smattering of informational tidbits that add just enough to enhance your enjoyment — you learn while you have fun. So, yes, there is so much in Summer of Soul. You will enjoy the music and the energy, and you will learn so much too. You will have an amazing two-hour trip through the Black Culture of 1969. Enjoy. (4.5*)
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