“Sumer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” condenses six weekends of concerts that took place over a two-month period in the summer of 1969 in New York City known collectively as the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
A straight-ahead concert film would’ve sufficed but filmmaker Questlove, in an impressive feature film debut, has added important interviews both then and now along with cultural signifiers that make the cross of music and social commentary illuminating.
“Summer of Soul” is not a pure concert film, one that has complete songs like Woodstock (1970) or Monterey Pop (1968), yet through the snippets of songs we experience truly electrifying music moments.
Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples reduce the audience to silly putty with a blues/gospel screaming call and response; The Fifth Dimension melds the music of Broadway, pop America and Soul with their version of “Let the Sunshine;” and you’ve never rocked out to Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” at the full tilt speed his band jams at unless you were there.
The version of “Everyday People” most people are familiar with is a mid-tempo Top 40 sound that moves the listener with its melody and lyrics. In “Summer of Soul” you witness a bandleader shifting his group into what can only be described as sonic overdrive.
Those are just some of the performers on display: others include Nina Simone, The Staples Singers, Hugh Maskela, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach and many others. There’s also recorded interviews with personalities and politicians like John Lindsay, Jessie Jackson, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, the latter not yet at his peak of stardom that would come three years later with his turn on “Sanford and Son.” Wonder plays the drums in addition to keyboards, and a post-credit roll sequence has Wonder playing a joke on a fellow entertainer by refusing to let go of their jacket.
The various weekends were divided into categories and filmed using what were at the time high definition television cameras. The footage evidently sat in a closet for decades unseen and uncelebrated.
One ad for “Summer of Soul” calls it the Black Woodstock, which is kind of misleading. Woodstock after all was an event that broke color barriers. When I think of that film (and subsequent three LP album release) the images of Sly Stone, Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix ranks alongside that of The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Joan Baez.
It’s not inconceivable that with “Summer of Soul” gaining popularity in movie theaters this holiday weekend a lengthy soundtrack album with complete versions of the many songs performed will soon be released.