In 1969, while Woodstock was making headlines, more than 300,000 people in the US attended a less-publicised event. The event was a series of six summer concerts known as the Harlem Cultural Festival – a free to all, soul music extravaganza.
Held at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem, New York, Harlem Cultural Festival was a celebration of music, culture, and ethnicity. The concert series welcomed an impressive collection of artists onto its stage, and over the course of a hot summer, many well-respected singers and groups played their music to an appreciative audience.
But while the Harlem Cultural Festival was a hit with attendees, and even received sponsorship from a well-known brand name such as Maxwell House, the concerts were not viewed by mainstream media as being as important as other events of the time. As such, Harlem Cultural Festival arrived, did its thing, and then quietly went away, with only those who attended truly being aware of its impact to the African American community.
Well, that is until now; because 52 years after the Harlem Cultural Festival took place, filmmaker Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson has released a documentary movie which throws the spotlight on the event. The film – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – takes a look back at the concerts, through a mix of previously unseen archival footage, as well as input from some of the people who were there. Set against the backdrop of a very turbulent period in US history, Summer of Soul is both an important historical document, as well as a great slice of entertainment. The docu-film offers a window to the past, to a time when racial tensions and high-profile assassinations dominated the headlines, while at the same time presents a celebration of music and life.
Summer of Soul is about what is happening on stage, as well as what is happening off it. It is an exploration of people, performances, and societal developments, all compressed into a toe-tapping, head-bobbing, two-hour movie.
The docu-film opens with footage of Stevie Wonder performing to a crowd, then continues with snippets from B. B. King, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Sly & The Family Stone, amongst others. In between these performances, various people who attended the concerts, as well as some well-known faces (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc) pop up to explain the significance of the event, as well as the intense political climate that surrounded it.
The film isn’t a straight-out concert – so don’t for a moment think it is – but it features enough live material to feel as if you have attended a show. And yet, at the same time, this is a show that is served up alongside a big slice of history.
What is perhaps most interesting about Summer of Soul is that even though the majority of the movie is composed of decades old footage, the film still manages to touch on themes that are relevant in 2021. In between performances there are discussions about inequality and even space exploration.
In 1969, when these concerts were taking place, the US was putting men on the moon, while the country and its people were in turmoil. Now contrast this with 2021, where we have billionaires shooting themselves into space, while a pandemic grips the Earth, causing death, mass unemployment, and civil unrest, and it’s not difficult to spot the parallels between the two time periods.
It is social commentary like this which adds meat to the bones of this docu-film, and elevates it above a simple concert video. All of the performances are contextualised to the time period, and this ensures the film doesn’t just play out as a jukebox of music.
Although, if truth be told, even if this movie was just a pop showcase, there would still be plenty to enjoy. From colourful costumes to expressive performances, including The Edwin Hawkins Singers belting out a rousing rendition of ‘Oh, Happy Day’, it’s all here, and it is all fantastic to see.
Should you want to watch Summer of Soul, the movie is currently playing in select cinemas, or can be viewed through Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK. The film is recommended to all, but especially to those with an affinity for ‘60s soul music who are itching to watch performances that were almost lost to time.