If you have the misfortune of being at a party with someone who claims that they miss “old music/real music” and asserts themselves as a connoisseur of 60’s artists despite being born in 2000 or something along those lines, chances are they won’t be able to shut up about Woodstock. You know, the era-defining music festival boasting the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Grateful Dead etc. that went on to become a manifesto-of-sorts for the counterculture. No one can shut up about it.
But what about the Harlem Cultural Festival? You know, the festival taking place just a few weeks earlier boasting the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, who all played to a crowd of almost 300,000 people over one summer? If you’re drawing blanks, don’t worry. Me too. That guy at the party? He definitely had no idea either.
I had no idea that this festival existed until it was announced that legendary musician Ahmir Thompson (AKA “Questlove”) was making his directorial debut on a documentary about this intoxicating slice of musical history, utilising incredible footage that was professionally filmed, then promptly went straight to someone’s basement where it sat tight for fifty years – before finally getting its due in Summer of Soul (Or… When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The results are just unbelievable.
Our stage is set (literally) almost immediately. People stand on the ground or in trees (and are often called out by the performers), with the smell and sounds of the park being evoked stunningly on film while everyone remains under the protection of the Black Panthers’ security. All this helps to turn what originally is an introducing account of this festival to perhaps already the definitive one. After decades with his band The Roots and fresh off being the musical director of the last two Academy Awards, Questlove knows how to play to an audience, what to emphasise, and what to love. He fits the archival footage with the wisdom that recording an event isn’t about giving the audience the best seat in the house; it’s about giving them every seat in the house and letting them experience it a thousand different ways.
We’ve had so many films about the late 60’s recently, from Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set, beautifully-made but ideologically-scattered Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 that attempts to dive headfirst into the socio-political minefield of the day with moderately decent results, or Damien Chazelle’s First Man. But none of them have Summer of Soul’s pointedness, its drive or its clarity of heart. And as genuinely wonderful as it is that Tarantino went block-by-block recreating 1969 LA practically, it can’t beat the real footage of thousands of New Yorkers having the time of their lives.
First Man’s subject matter even becomes a punchline halfway through – Apollo 11 lands on the moon on the same day as one of the concerts, yet Thompson has a blast going between the wider (and whiter) cultural response to such a seemingly momentous event, with everyone pontificating over how we’re all so much closer together (before they all probably go vote for Nixon). But none of the attendees of the Harlem Cultural Festival could care less. That money could have gone to Harlem, under-funded and over-policed as the archival footage shows. And also Sly’s about to come on stage, so that takes precedent over anything.
As the film goes on, your feelings go slowly from shock and awe at this incredible new footage from a seemingly bygone era finally being seen, to shock and anger that it’s finally being seen. It’s a genuine cultural atrocity that only now can anyone beyond the 300,000 original witnesses get to experience the festival, and it’s a bittersweet fact that is echoed in the lines and wrinkles on the faces of the many performers and festivalgoers that Thompson brings on camera to interview all these years later.
They speak on their experiences not as beacons of knowledge and understanding, but as if they were half-remembered dreams that might have been too good to be true, since none of it got retained or reflected in the culture that passed it by. Two surviving members of The 5th Dimension are visibly moved viewing footage of their performance after so long, as they credit it as being a legitimisation of their music that often got misconstrued for “white music” (with one of them bringing up an interesting thought: “How do you colour a sound?”) And Thompson movingly closes the film with one of the festivalgoers, decades later, wiping away tears, proclaiming: “I knew I wasn’t crazy. I knew.”
It still stings though. It is comparatively crazy that Woodstock (only a few weeks later) was allowed to completely take hold of the musical and cultural narrative in a way that no festival has ever had the opportunity to. It set the tempo and the beat in a way that still reverberates today; and one of the central arguments of Thompson’s documentary is “Why isn’t it the case here?” After finishing Summer of Soul I watched some Woodstock clips and I know which festival I’d prefer to be at in a heartbeat. At least there was no rain in Harlem.
As a director, Thompson’s ambitions match those of the organisers of the festival, as he utilises this footage to obliterate any distance between art and politics, putting both upfront as things that could not function in the same way without the other. Whether the music is gospel, rock, soul or Simone (who is, as this footage proves, in a whole genre of her own) – none of it exists without the outside world that the music is a reflection on, and more often than not for both performers and audiences, an escape. The film doesn’t allow the footage to just be music; it never was, and labelling it so is stunningly reductive. Allowing for history and context to seep in only enhances its quality.
When an early showing of Stevie Wonder rocking out a drum solo is breathlessly intercut with the rising tide of unrest, grief and anger at the state of the world in Black America – the violence, racism, poverty and frequent assassination of leaders, it reminds you early that Summer of Soul’s 1969 framework is only one summer removed from the nationwide protests over Martin Luthor King Jr.’s murder – which is articulated by one of the witnesses, Rev. Jesse Jackson, when he makes an appearance at the festival. But instead of just acknowledging the pain and trauma, Jackson leads the crowd in a performance of King’s favourite gospel song – allegedly he was shot while gushing about his love for it. It’s yet another example of just how important this music is to so many people, on so many levels, which Thompson honours so beautifully.
This isn’t re-contextualising history or reshaping it from the viewpoint of someone or something else. This is history. It’s history that for some satanic reason has gone unwatched for fifty years, and it’s come back with a vengeance (and a whistle and a melody and a tap and a clap) to claim its place as a touchstone that should have been the benchmark going forward for every gig, every festival, every piece of political or performance art – and every situation that allows for people to gather together in the thousands and imagine a better world together. What an extraordinary film this is.
Summer of Soul will be released in the UK on July 16th on Disney Plus.