Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), 2021.
Directed by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson.
Featuring Lin Manuel Miranda (self), Chris Rock (self), Stevie Wonder (self), Nina Simone (archive), Jesse Jackson (self), B.B. King (archive), Sly and the Family Stone (archive).
The Harlem Culture Festival happened on July 20th 1969 in Mount Morris Park Harlem. This documentary explores the impact that musical event had on those present.
There is no getting away from the cultural importance of this concert film. Rock royalty Led Zeppelin had yet to be immortalised with The Song Remains The Same, while Martin Scorsese was still only a fan of The Band rather than the creative force he would become. History it seems had bigger fish to fry in July of 1969, when America was distracted by a certain lunar landing.
New ground may have been broken that day in Mount Morris Park, but Harlem’s relegation to the back page highlighted a much larger country wide problem. An ongoing involvement in Vietnam still represented an open wound for many, while enlightened racial attitudes were still a matter of opinion. Glastonbury had happened the same year and was instantly lauded as a musical landmark, yet this festival, which celebrated diversity and acceptance disappeared without a whisper.
That the moment was captured on camera and then disappeared into a basement for fifty years is diabolical. Musical luminaries Gladys Knight, B.B. King and Nina Simone were all present in gloriously over saturated primary colours. Political figureheads including Jessie Jackson preached, while ensemble legends Sly and the Family Stone brought unbridled funk to an adoring crowd.
Through a combination of talking heads, stock footage and live concert snippets Harlem is brought to life. Historically the snapshot of this time and place are precious, as a sea of local residents bask in this outpouring of musical creativity. Contemporary contributors including Lin Manuel Miranda and Chris Rock extol the virtues of that day, while others share their passionate memories.
Discussions around minority representation within music and neighbourhood solidarity are at the forefront. Surviving participants reminisce, tears and shed and our time in their presence is fleeting. More than anything Summer of Soul captures an American landscape in flux on a multitude of levels. Disco was coming, Watergate was just an office building and counterculture film making would soon be embodied by Easy Rider.
Summer of Soul is a sensory experience built on barnstorming live performances which permeate every frame. Uplifting, culturally sobering and not without its flaws; this film feels like a love letter to a bygone era. One hamstrung by outmoded ideas of identity, indoctrinated racial beliefs and a corrupt commander in chief.
Nixon had been in office six months, while the nation was still recovering from the assassination of Martin Luther King, who had been dead less than twelve months. In a decade which had already seen John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X felled before their time; emotions were running hot when the bands started to play. From that perspective, Summer of Soul stands alone as an iconic musical moment defined by disruption, unrest and fragile human resilience.
Summer of Soul is released in UK cinemas on July 16th and on Disney+ from July 30th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★