“Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” documents the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, which brought nearly 300,000 people, most of them African-Americans, to a neighborhood park for six concerts of Black music. Directed by drummer and DJ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (of the Roots), and featuring extraordinary performances, the film, opening in theaters and streaming on July 2, is a noteworthy concert documentary. It’s also an ebullient celebration of far more than music.
Described by one of Thompson’s engaging interviewees as the “ultimate Black barbecue,” the 1969 festival took place in Mount Morris Park in Harlem over six Sundays. It was designed to bring together a wounded community a year after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.
Nightclub singer Tony Lawrence founded and hosted the concerts, and producer Hal Tulchin filmed them. Maxwell House coffee sponsored the festival, while New York Mayor John Lindsay, whose liberal-Republican politics would make him an alien species today, endorsed it. The Black Panthers, because the community lacked faith in the police — one of many ways in which this doc remains relevant today — provided security.
The festival was called the “Black Woodstock.” But unlike that history-making festival, which overlapped with the Harlem concerts and was just 100 miles away, the Harlem event was largely forgotten. Some call it an act of Black erasure.
With footage that sat in a basement, ignored for 50 years, “Summer of Soul” makes clear that something incredible happened on those six Sundays.
An inspired mixologist, Thompson, in his feature-film debut, presents the concert footage non-chronologically and complements it with excerpts from interviews recently conducted with artists and attendees of the 1969 shows. Conversations with other cultural figures and news footage further enrich the picture.
African-American life underwent a transformation in 1969. “Black” replaced “Negro,” and the Black Power movement ignited a sense of pride (“I am black, I am beautiful”) and political purpose in African-Americans, especially young people. Artists from both the Black Power and civil-rights periods shared the lineup at the Harlem festival, all seeming, in various degrees, possessed by the spirit of the occasion.
Thompson leads off with a performance by a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, playing the drums with a fervor signaling a new direction for an artist known for softer love songs. B.B. King blisteringly performs “Why I Sing the Blues.” Gladys Knight and the Pips excite the audience with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
A gospel section illustrates the influence of the church on Black music, with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson. In a glorious duet, Jackson and Mavis Staples sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson has told the crowd, was MLK’s favorite song. Mahalia Jackson’s handing of the microphone to Staples has a passing-of-the-torch quality.
How Black artists perform differently for Black audiences than for white crowds is one of Thompson’s themes.
The Fifth Dimension performs “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” with an edge not found in the group’s recorded version. In an interview, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. reveal that the group was saddened by notions that its music sounded white. They hoped to debunk that perception in Harlem.
Sly and the Family Stone, performing “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher” (which closes the film), impress the crowd by bucking norms (a white drummer; no suits and ties; a San Francisco psychedelic sound!).
Nina Simone, “Priestess of Soul,” looking both regal and revolutionary, her hair piled high, is a standout in three numbers. Her performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” her anthem for newer generations, simply glows.
Also on the bill are the Chambers Brothers, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masakela, former Temptations member David Ruffin, and, in a sequence on Latin musicians and the Brown faces of Harlem, percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto.
The audience and community discuss subjects ranging from poverty and addiction to Black fashion to why they believe the Harlem festival is more important than the moon landing, which coincided with the July 20 concert.
Thompson can’t include everything in the two-hour doc, of course. But it would have been enlightening to hear some of today’s young Black musicians talking about how the Black Power ideals of 50 years ago, and the artists embodying them, have influenced them.
But this rousing, rich, significant film is caringly thought out and joyously free-flowing. Thompson, who was handed amazing material and knew what to do with it, has given the monumental cultural event the documentary it deserves.
Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Starring: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mavis Staples
Directed by: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes