Nina Simone Summer of Soul
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Summer of Soul Review #2: Believe the Buzz

Questlove’s music doc brilliantly captures the politics, energy, and spirit of ‘69

5 mins read

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
(USA, 117 min.)
Dir. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson


While celebrity director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his producers have made much about their doc Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) finally being made more than 50 years after the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival took place, it is a great time for the film to be released. Hip hop, rap, house, electronica, drum & bass (and many others) have long since replaced gospel, jazz and r&b and blues as popular music genres but the Black Power politics of 1969 is suddenly immensely relevant in this age of George Floyd, BLM and grass roots activism. And the performers who performed at what is now Marcus Garvey Park are now legendary: B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples with “Pop” and her sisters.

Summer of Soul is that rarity, a documentary that might just be the most anticipated film of the year. Questlove’s film premiered to astonishing press notices at this year’s Sundance festival and went on to win the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at Park City. Now a film about a series of outdoor concerts in Harlem that attracted over 300,000 people in 1969 will become a hugely popular event in the rapidly changing pandemic world of today. Audiences will come expecting to hear wonderful music and they will certainly be rewarded by the brilliant blues playing of B.B. King, the inflammatory jazz of Abbey Lincoln with Max Roach and the skilled moves and vocalizing of Gladys Knight & the Pips. With Questlove as the film’s director, insightful looks into the music of the Sixties were bound to have pride of place in Summer of Soul. A famous drummer in his own right, Questlove has placed an intense drum solo by Stevie Wonder into a key moment in the film and included a personal anecdote by Mavis Staples in which gospel great Mahalia Jackson quietly anointed her on stage—woman to woman—as the new Diva of Gospel.

Still, it isn’t just the music that makes Summer of Soul absolutely remarkable. The film is more than that: it captures the spirit of the Sixties politically and emotionally. 1969 marked the end of a decade that saw the assassinations of Malcolm X, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. The Vietnam War was raging, with a high percentage of African American men, fighting in an imperialist war for a government that had only recently given them their full civil rights. Riots had erupted in many American streets in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s murder and it’s likely that the Harlem Cultural Festival only got its funding in an attempt to pacify the most renowned Black community in America a year later.

Summer of Soul features Jesse Jackson, King’s heir apparent, speaking several times about the simmering hot political situation in Black America. The controversial Black Panthers had a real presence in the Park that summer as did the police. Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln were radicals, whose politics were well known to the crowd and voiced in the festival and the film. Although the festival did succeed to keeping Harlem under wraps, the concerts definitely expressed the anger and frustration of Black Americans as well as pride in their culture, which produced so many great musical stars at the time. One of the nicest aspects of the doc is contemporary interviews with attendees of the festival—many quite young back then—who remember how brilliant and fraught the events were in 1969.

Summer of Soul is being compared to Woodstock, which certainly helped the growth of hippiedom in the early Seventies. What would Summer of Soul have done to Black Power then? We’ll never know. But it’s great the film is out now, ready to influence a generation that is as political and culturally aware as were their grandparents. This is a film that everyone should see. 2021 needs to be a new Summer of Soul.

Summer of Soul is in select theatres and on Disney+ July 2.

Read our review from Sundance here.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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