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'Summer of Soul' unearths musical history

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was forgotten until Questlove revived the footage in an exciting new documentary

A still from 'Summer of Soul'
A still from 'Summer of Soul'

In the summer of 1969, the same summer as Woodstock, some of the biggest musical acts of the time, like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and the Fifth Dimension all performed in New York’s Mount Morris Park.

Woodstock was immortalized. The Harlem Cultural Festival forgotten. But the event is given new light in the must-see documentary Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

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Over the course six weekends, some 300,000 people would pass through what is now Marcus Garvey Park to watch the marquee names on the schedule, with the Black Panthers providing security. The brainchild of a born promoter, Tony Lawrence, the free summer concert series was sponsored by Maxwell Coffee and covered by the local news. General Foods even had the foresight to commission someone to film the festival, hiring television veteran Hal Tulchin for the task. The money was so short, they faced the stage west to save on lighting.

By the end, Tulchin, who died in 2017, had amassed some 40 hours of footage of the performances, the massive crowds, the political speeches and the comedy acts. After some failed efforts to sell or do something with it, even with its new nickname “Black Woodstock,” it sat in a basement, largely unseen, for five decades — that is until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson dusted it off and made out of it a strong contender for the best documentary of the year.

In Summer of Soul, Questlove pulls off an extraordinary feat turning these endless hours of footage into not just an exciting concert film, but an elegant and essential historical document of a particularly fraught and powerful moment in history. It is sometimes celebratory, sometimes critical and never less than utterly engaging. And although it’s Questlove’s first film, you’d never know it.

It is extraordinary how much information and music is packed into these two hours. The film delves into the various musical styles of the moment, how some artists like Stevie Wonder and David Ruffin were evolving, the diversity of Harlem itself, the Puerto Rican influence (with commentary from Lin-Manuel Miranda), the divisions in the community (including an emotional Marilyn McCoo talking about the criticisms that the Fifth Dimension had a “white sound”) as well as the local and national sociopolitical context. And somehow nothing feels like it’s getting the short shrift.

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Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson also know when to feature a full performance as opposed to just clips for ultimate impact. There’s a reason Nina Simone and “Backlash Blues” is saved for last.

And though the performances are riveting — standouts include Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples belting out “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “O Happy Day” — it’s the shots of the all-ages crowd that makes this film come alive, with the vibrant fashions, the incredible faces, the excitement, the boredom and the humanity of it all packed into every frame.

The question of why this seminal event could be so little-known hovers over every frame. There is an answer provided at the very end, but just be warned: It’s not a satisfying one. If there is any quibble with Summer of Soul, it’s that this wasn’t interrogated more. But the film perhaps is smarter to not dwell on that fact. Instead, it’s correcting the wrong and giving this festival its long overdue moment in the sun.

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