How rare and wonderful is it to watch a documentary and witness it immediately change the accepted history of a subject? Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s ecstatic debut, digs up never-before-seen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival held during the summer of weekends of 1969. Contemporaneous with that famous concert upstate that would define the so-called “Woodstock Generation,” the assembly of talent at 124th Street was no less impressive than what took place on Bethel’s farm. However, while the hippies got all the attention, this mega assembly of talent was soon forgotten.
From June to August 1969, masses gathered every Sunday at New York’s Mount Morris Park for a celebration of African American and Latinx musical expression. These jams showcased jazz giants like Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, divine drummers like Mongo Santamaria, Gospel goddesses like Mahalia Jackson, pop superstars like The 5th Dimension, R&B royalty like the Staple Singers, psych soul pioneers like Sly and the Family Stone, and magnificent Motown artists like David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and a positively electrifying set by a teenage Stevie Wonder. Shot on reel-to-reel videotape, the restoration is as impressive as the film itself. Summer of Soul presents the performances with a clarity and vibrancy that brings these scenes to life.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a percussionist with the polyrhythmic prowess of Thompson juggles multiple tales at once. He allows myriad musical sequences time to breathe—Oh, that drum solo by Wonder! Oh, that moment where Mahalia and Mavis share a mic!—while intercutting reflections by people who were there. Deeper examination of the origins of these shows, as well as addressing questions about how its legacy was left to languish, receives appropriate space.
In the pantheon of music documentaries of this era – Festival, Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, Woodstock – the Harlem Cultural Festival was simply swept under the rug. Even Wattstax, the 1972 show in Los Angeles that had some of the same participants, received multiple soundtrack recordings and a fine documentary several years ago. For these Harlem concerts, however, this became a kind of dream, something that was overshadowed by the music celebrated from shows that took place elsewhere (for reasons of negligence, nefariousness, or otherwise).
These were concerts primarily by African Americans for a primarily African American audience. As such, it was never a priority for those who had the ability to bring the event to the fore on a national or global level. It’s therefore all the more remarkable that the time is perfect to uncover the sheer majesty of many of these performances, to hear with the benefit of a half-century of reflection the thoughts of those that were there, and to have an artist of the calibre of Thompson infuse the film with an intense musicality that drives the film along. The result is a beautifully crafted film that evokes the spirit of the day while never shying away from its deeper message and complicated context that silenced these shows for so many years.
Summer of Soul is an absolute triumph. It uncovers a holy grail of soul, Latin, and jazz music that quite literally reshapes the story of what took place musically in the summer of 1969. Thompson and his team have performed a magic trick of the highest order. Forevermore, that historic summer that continues to shape contemporary music will have a long-forgotten setlist added to the top of its running order.
Sundance 2021 runs from Thursday, Jan 28 to Wednesday, February 3.
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Update: Summer of Soul is in theatres and on Disney+ featuring Star July 2.