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Review: Summer of Soul Joyously Resuscitates the Black Woodstock

Questlove’s Summer of Soul is as much an essential music documentary as it is a public service.

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Chris Barsanti

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Summer of Soul
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, a glorious celebration of the nearly forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, feels like not just an essential music documentary but also something of a public service. In 1969, when New York was reeling from riots, poverty, and crime, club promoter and lounge singer Tony Lawrence hosted a free music festival over six summer Sundays in Mount Morris Park to celebrate the glory and tenacity of black culture. Over three hundred thousand people came to see many of the era’s most popular African-American musicians in one place. But even though the festival was a runaway success and dutifully committed to celluloid, footage of the event shot by TV veteran Hal Tulchin—who died in 2017 still clinging to the hope that his work would be fashioned into a film—sat in a basement for half a century and the event itself was soon forgotten.

From the evidence provided by Summer of Soul, that forgetting is long overdue for correction. The first number we see is Stevie Wonder doing a slowed-down “It’s Your Thing” before ripping into a face-melter of a drum solo. The killer performances come fast, and in a diversity of styles that seemed intended not just as a survey of black American music but also as a celebration of Harlem’s cultural mosaic. Besides chart-toppers like Wonder, the 5th Dimension, and Gladys Night & the Pips, there were blues and gospel acts like B.B. King and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, jazz performers such as Max Roach (whose fiery drum solo tops even Wonder’s) and South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, Afro-Caribbean musicians like Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretto, and others like Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone whose music was inimitable and practically uncategorizable. A phenomenal MC with seemingly bottomless energy, Lawrence is a beaming presence in a series of excessively ruffled outfits that look like they were borrowed from a cruise ship entertainer. One interviewee describes him as “a hustler in the best sense,” which captures his contagious appeal.

Playing on a series of bright summer afternoons in front of adoring crowds (“I see you, brother,” one singer says to a man grooving in a tree easily 20 feet off the ground), each band appears to revel in the rare beauty of what they’re witnessing, particularly in such a poverty- and crime-stricken neighborhood as Harlem. A student of music history like Questlove could have easily knocked together a two-hour sizzle reel of the concerts’ top performances. But to tell the true story of the festival, he braids in narratives around the music that enrich the numbers we see by giving them additional political and personal resonance. In some of the most affecting moments, Questlove shows footage to people who attended the festival, often as children, and keeps the camera on their faces, watching them be transported back to a moment they describe as magical. One man recalls never having been around so many of his fellow black people and rhapsodizes about the “beauty” of the crowd.

Writers, surviving performers, and archival news footage also help to place the festival in the context of its time and place. The previous spring’s assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had convulsed Harlem, leaving its people psychologically traumatized and, after the riots, economically imperiled. The film is clear-eyed about the festival not being a fix for decades of oppression and abandonment, including an attendee who wonders whether it was planned “to keep black folks from burning up the city” during another hot summer.

At one point, Questlove uses a clip of Lawrence bringing John Lindsay on stage to illustrate what interviewees say about how deeply Harlemites appreciated the white mayor’s empathy for their struggle (Lawrence introduces him as “our blue-eyed soul brother”). The film neatly stitches together culture and politics in one poignant instance where Jesse Jackson speaks of witnessing King’s assassination, recites a prayer, and then introduces Mahalia Jackson to sing King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord,” with help from an awestruck Mavis Staples. Al Sharpton describes the catharsis of such moments by saying how, at the time, black people didn’t know how to deal with their trauma by going to a therapist: “But we knew Mahalia Jackson.”

Like Amazing Grace and Desolation Center, Summer of Soul serves as a testament to a beautiful cultural moment otherwise lost to history. As far as most people know, the only epochal free music festival in 1969 happened far north in Bethel, NY. From what Summer of Soul argues, the Harlem Cultural Festival was every bit a lightning rod for the zeitgeist as Woodstock. (It also had the advantage of not featuring Country Joe and the Fish.) At one point, Questlove’s working title was actually Black Woodstock, which is how Tulchin tried to sell his footage to uninterested broadcasters and distributors. Fortunately, Questlove changed the name to something that allows the festival to be appreciated for what it was.

Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2021

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