Continuing the impressive streak of 2021 music documentaries, The Roots frontman Questlove makes his directorial debut with Hulu’s Summer of Soul (… Or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised). Extensively using stunning archival footage in combination with interviews with key artists, participants and other important figures, Summer of the soul is a vibrant celebratory chronicle of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
During the summer of 1969, with Woodstock in full swing in Bethel, New York, another equally influential music festival was taking place in the city of Harlem. The Harlem Culture Festival (sometimes colloquially referred to as the “Black Woodstock”) was a summer series of free musical performances by and for the black community, and the entire event was filmed for broadcast later.
That “later” never came, however, and the footage sat dormant for over 50 years until Questlove rekindled interest in the Harlem Culture Festival and finally helped bring the footage to light. expected.
It’s that streak, combined with crucial interviews with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Chris Rock, that includes The summer of Soul, which functions both as a festival film concert and as a monument to the hitherto unstated importance of the event itself. Which sets Summer of the soul apart from most other concert films is, of course, the sheer passion of the subjects for the festival, and the significance of the event itself, which stood as a literal and figurative landmark of (in the words of the film) “the year that ‘negro’ died and ‘Black’ was born”.
Summer of Soul is a vibrant tribute to the beauty of black culture.
The festival was on the cusp of several significant turning points in American culture – in the midst of the Vietnam War, still feeling the ripples of desegregation across the country, reeling from the assassination of key civil rights figures like the Dr King, Malcolm X, and both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, and last but not least, coinciding almost perfectly with the Apollo 11 moon landing. The film shows very clearly from the first moments that the Harlem Culture Festival was not just a music festival – it was a marker of change, a celebration of the darkness in America, and a reminder of the past struggles and perseverance of communities in the face of oppression.
Described as the ‘ultimate black barbecue’, Summer of the soul effortlessly captures the electricity and vibrancy that must have been in the air during the original festival – maintained not only by the beautiful, crystal-clear recordings of the live performances, but also thanks in large part to the passion with which the interviewees reflect on the holiday. Whether it is a featured artist or an ordinary citizen who attended the festival as a child, there is a clear and brilliant passion that every person interviewed seems to share for the festival that shines through and brings to life. to images in a way that few other concert films can boast.
There is a sense of unity in the festival that Questlove preserves in its portrayal of the festival – bands ranging from Christian gospel bands to Afro-Latino percussion ensembles to racial and gender funk groups were in attendance, creating a rich and diverse community that has come together in celebration of black music and culture in America. Questlove in turn creates that same sense of oneness in the viewing experience – that even though the festival was held over half a century ago, you can’t help but feel you have it. experienced firsthand thanks to the passion with which the film and its interviewees discuss the holiday.
Interspersed with interviews and recorded footage from the festival, there is also news and archival footage highlighting some of the smaller and more personal stories inspired and / or sparked by the power of the festival – not just melting it as a celebration of escape, but also as a vector of progress and change – Nina Simone’s magnetic performance at the festival is reserved for the final act of the film, but it is a powerful reminder of her power as an interpreter and how the festival was unlike anything before or since.
A visually stunning time capsule of the eclectic mix of fashion, hairstyles and changing cultural attitudes at the time, as well as a deeply personal tribute to one of the most influential but unrecognized cultural events in American history, Questlove’s first film. The summer of the soul, through a mix of festival film reels, archival footage and key interviews, craftsmanship and cheerful and contagious celebration of the Harlem Culture Festival.