Summer Of Soul
This film (whose full title is Summer Of Soul…Or, When Revolution Could Not Be Televised, but give me a break with that) popped up in the Disney+ queue a little while ago and I probably would not have given it any attention but for the certain truckload of critical praise that brought it proudly into the full spotlight of the zeitgeist. Soul music as that which is the main point of this project is not something that I have never truly been into in a huge way, but I’ll admit that for a period a few years ago I did get a brief fascination with that kind of culture thanks to, of all things, Luke Cage. Summer Of Soul seemed like a good way to indulge that brief obsession again, and if absolutely nothing else it promised to be a concert film featuring the kind of artists who have to be experienced live of possible.
In the summer of 1969, while America continued a seemingly inevitable social disintegration, man went to the moon and Woodstock took place in upstate New York, a different kind of music festival occurred over the course of several weeks in Mount Morris Park, Harlem. The “Harlem Cultural Festival” gave artists of numerous backgrounds, races and musical talent the chance to play in front of enormous crowds, before it, and the footage that was taken of the event, was largely forgotten. Now, over 50 years later, that same footage has been unearthed, with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson aiming to give the festival the spotlight it deserves.
Summer Of Soul is the kind of film that I have to give props to just for the way it which it gets across everything that it is trying to get across in the opening moments, and does it without any archive footage or music. A middle-aged black man is shown watching footage of the festival off-camera as he prepares for a “talking head” interview. His eyes go wide. His mouth is open. He can’t quite believe the memory that is playing out before him. In the next two hours, we go through a lot of artists, a lot of popping clothes and a lot of music, and we are right there with that man at the conclusion.
This documentary is about a lot more than just music. This is about a moment lost to time. perhaps deliberately: some of the talking heads certainly indicate darkly that the lack of attention given the Harlem Cultural Festival in posterity might be more to do with an effort to remove people of colour from the popular consciousness than just simple carelessness, and they may well be right. More than one person enunciates an opinion that they can finally declare themselves not crazy now that proof of the event is here. The Festival was a month of music and singing involving predominantly black musicians and black audience members, along with a healthy influx of though of a Latino background, but came at a time of heightened racial tensions and predominantly white achievements like Apollo 11, the dissent towards which not being something that many in positions of broadcast power seemed eager to showcase at the time. Combine that with the Black Panther security present, and you begin to understand that it might have seemed like a bit of a threat to people of a certain mindset.
So, the Harlem Cultural Festival was lost, along with everything that it represented: a showcase of different musical styles, signing ability, and audience participation wrapped up in the experience of being a black American from a black American neighborhood. Artists like Nina Simone used the occasion to talk about the transformative power of music and the need to continue the effort for greater civil rights in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s murder: no wonder many of those filmed as being present look absolutely enthralled, as much as they do looking back at the footage fifty years later.
It’s a moment of awakening and a moment of remembrance all rolled into the one, and the dichotomy as presented by Questlove is very striking. There may be times when you get distracted by the way the modern-day interviewees are thrown in – I have a feeling Lin-Manual Miranda is really only here on the back of his recent pop-culture domination, and not because his insights are especially important – but for the most part Summer Of Soul flows quite well. You must also ignore the reality that the Festival wasn’t quite as buried as Questlove likes to think it is – footage of it was part of the 2015 documentary What Happened, Nina Simone? for example – but it would be churlish to claim it is a well-known event.
And, of course, the music is quit good too. Obviously this type of soul, jazz and combinations will not be to everybodys taste: for me, I can say that the overly-religious aspect of so much that is being sung makes me a bit uncomfortable today for example. But other than that it is an undeniably entrancing look at thus subculture of music at the time. Artists like a very young Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and the aforementioned Nina Simone all get the time to demonstrate their power with a couple of songs, sung in the unassuming surrounds of this very basic stage – a set designer outlines that he has to make sure it was directed so the sun would provide adequate lighting – and yet the effect is maximised to the full by the way the audience is captivated by what they are seeing. There’s a really excellent analysis that takes place across the whole film, as witnesses outline how being exposed to new and different forms of music, be it soul or whatever else, was such a revolutionary thing for them.
Questlove wants to get across how important this was, and I think he largely succeeds. You can see it in the way that people react to the footage from half a century later, and you can see it in the way that people reacted to it all then and there. A good case is put forward for the footage in question being deliberate sunk as part of the larger culture war being fought at the time, which gives Summer Of Soul some weight to go along with the lighter examples of music that are its nominal main purpose. I have to say that this makes it a pretty successful documentary on nearly all fronts: it showcases an event that you won’t have heard of (unless you were there it seems), it adds a new dimension to a well-worn conversation on race and it allows a number of personalities to record their thoughts and stories. It’s rare you will get an experience that complete in this kind of genre. Whether it is streaming or in theatres, this is worth seeing, and it’s enraging and concerning it was archived in the first place. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Disney+).