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‘Summer of Soul’ a musical treasure unburied

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a music guy. For whatever reason, music had never resonated with me in the way it did so many of my otherwise like-minded peers. It wasn’t my thing. But sometimes, I’d experience something that would give me a clearer sense of that passion.

Maybe it was a song I heard at a party or at a bar. Maybe I was sitting in a theater – movie or stage. Maybe it was someone feverishly proselytizing about a band they loved that I’d never heard of. Maybe someone showed me “Stop Making Sense.” Maybe it was as simple as: “You need to hear this.”

I always cherish those moments when I have them, the gooseflesh-raising instances when music gets inside me.

“Summer of Soul” was one of those moments.

The new documentary – its full title is “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” – is directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It’s a look back at an iconic moment in music and cultural history, telling the story of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts that brought world-class talent to the NYC neighborhood.

Over the course of six weeks, an astonishing cavalcade of talent moved through Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Literally hundreds of thousands of people would turn up to this series of free concerts, featuring A-list names like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and so many more, all part of this incredible endeavor.

And if you’re like me, you had never even heard of it.

Footage of the event had been filmed in the moment, led by director Hal Tulchin, but in the aftermath was promptly forgotten. The entire scene was in effect upstaged by Woodstock, which would take place later that same summer. After that, no outlet was interested in Tulchin’s work, and so the footage wound up in a basement, abandoned and unseen for some 50 years.

That footage came to light when producer Robert Fyvolent got wind of its existence and purchased the rights from Tulchin, with Questlove coming on board to direct.

The end result is a revelatory film experience, featuring of-the-moment performance footage of some of the greatest musical acts of the time. Interspersed with the stunning sights and sounds of that time are interviews – interviews with artists who performed there, people who attended the shows and some famous folks who simply recognize the community and cultural value of the Festival.

From the film’s opening moments, wherein we’re shown a young and vibrant Stevie Wonder absolutely crushing a version of “It’s Your Thing” before moving to a jaw-dropper of a drum solo, all of it interspersed with clips of talking heads and newscasts discussing the myriad issues facing Black people in America in the late 1960s, it’s clear that this is movie is about much more than music.

(Big shock that Questlove would use a drum solo to tear the roof off right from the beginning.)

Make no mistake – if this film had been nothing but restored, recut footage of the assorted performances and the like from the Harlem Cultural Festival, it would be a dynamic and engaging document of the music of the time. It would have been an incredible resource just as is. But by bringing in so many other voices, people with the understanding necessary to comment on the context in which the HCF was taking place, Questlove has given audiences something far more impactful.

By using the concert footage as a foundation, we’re able to get a much broader look at the world as it existed for Black people during that time. It’s a chance to engage with people discussing music, yes, but also the civil rights movement and its leaders, as well as Harlem’s status as a cultural center.

“Summer of Soul” is one of those films that just hits differently. The highlights are too numerous to note, with every featured act absolutely blowing the (non-existent) doors off the place. From Sly Stone putting on a performance masterclass to Nina Simone’s power leaving tens of thousands silent, from the madcap joy of The 5th Dimension to the tightly choreographed energy of Gladys Knight & the Pips – just an absolute treasure trove of musical greatness.

But it might be the moments where we get a sense of how this festival affected those who were there that shine brightest. Watching people light up as they see this footage for the first time, whether they were there in the audience or on the stage … that’s the kind of stuff that’ll fill your heart up.

(Seriously – if you can watch Marilyn McCoo’s reaction to seeing her younger self on that stage with The 5th Dimension, the collision of what that meant to her at the time and what it means to her now, and not have some sort of visceral emotional reactions, well … congratulations on being made of stone.)

“Summer of Soul” is as good a movie as you’re likely to see this summer. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and – of course – the music SLAPS. Don’t be surprised to be hearing all of this again come awards season, either, because this is an exceptional film. Do yourself a favor and experience it for yourself.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 July 2021 22:20

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