In the summer of 1969, there was a music festival. No, not Woodstock but another, equally significant gathering of the top music acts of the era. For six weeks that summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival brought together a neighborhood and the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, MotownGladys Knight & the Pops, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, B.B. King, The Staple Singers, and Sly and the Family Stone. 300,000 people, mostly Black locals attended. A film crew captured the whole thing. And then the footage sat in a basement for 50 years because "there was no interest in a Black Woodstock."
Thankfully Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson sought out this footage and has compiled it into a new documentary that is one of the absolute must-see films of the year. Now it would be enough just to get to see some of these performances for the first time. Questlove does one better by placing the concert series in the context of the era. The Black Panthers provided security for the event. The mayor of New York attended. The artists and community began referring to themselves as "black" over "negro." This context adds so much to each amazing performance.
Musically, Summer of Soul captures a wide range of music styles. Gladys Knight brings the Motown sound, the 5th Dimension brings sunny pop, Ray Barretto brings his congo drums, B.B. King brings the blues, Max Roach jazz, and Sly Stone introduces many to funk. It is a hell of a line-up. Then there is Mavis Staples getting the chance to sing with her idol Mahalia Jackson. The two sing Martin Luther King Jr's favorite song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." It is an incredibly moving moment. You can feel the crowd responding to the recent death of King while being taken to church by these powerhouse vocalists.
Nina Simone sings "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." It is another incredible moment given the historical context of the use of "black" at the time. It is a moment you won't soon forget. However, some people interviewed recall the vague memory of the event only to be given back their memories by Questlove. Musa Jackson tears up realizing that his memory of the festival is real. He expresses his gratitude to Questlove for giving this back to him.
We should all express our gratitude for Questlove making Summer of Soul. It is destined to be a classic in the rock doc genre. I was moved several times while watching it and I know any music fan would be as well. It is very rare to find a perfect film but Summer of Soul is just that.
*The film is being released by Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, and Onyx Collective. It will be in theaters and streaming on Hulu. Seek out a theater for this one and tell them to play it loud.