Concert doc ‘Summer of Soul’ is a powerhouse of music and meaning

Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul is not only the rediscovery of a buried treasure. It’s one of the best movies of any kind this year, a spectacularly energetic musical documentary from the golden age of Black pop music, with waves of thrills and multiple layers of meaning.

In the summer of 1969, at the same time as Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival drew more than 300,000 mostly Black attendees to a park in Harlem, for six weekends of free music in the open air, featuring a galaxy of performers. The concerts were filmed but—perhaps because it was simply too Black—that footage never got the showcase it deserved and Questlove’s original 1969 documentary of the event, Black Woodstock, came and went quietly. Now, 50 years later, Summer of Soul —or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised—is here, and it’s glorious. The doc itself is one long highlight, but here’s a quick list of some standout moments:

Stevie Wonder – One of the few Motown stars to appear—although ex-Temptation David Ruffin also shows up to sing “My Girl”—crowd-pleaser Wonder tears up the stage with “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” his vocal and piano tour-de-force.

Gladys Knight and the Pips – Knight’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is smooth as silk. Her view of the festival’s role in the mood of the times: “It wasn’t just about the music. We wanted change.”

Sly & the Family Stone – “They came to check us out.” The East Bay’s own “two-tone soul group”—A white drummer? A woman on trumpet? No matching outfits?—shows the New York crowd a thing or two about West Coast partying with “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “Higher.” Outrageous! Reportedly, the NYPD did not provide security for Sly’s set—the Black Panther Party stepped in to do the job instead.

Edwin Hawkins Singers – The East Bay also represents outstandingly in the gospel music of this sanctified choral group and their Top 40 hit, “Oh Happy Day,” with Dorothy Morrison on lead vocals. Church ladies in the Harlem audience go wild.

The Staple Singers with Mavis Staples – More gospel, but this time in a Delta Blues framework from the chart-busting Mississippi-to-Chicago family vocal act, who offer “It’s Been a Change” and “Help Me Jesus.” The most moving performance in the movie features Mavis Staples singing backup to the legendary Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the favorite hymn of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated the year before. A young Rev. Jesse Jackson also takes the mic to eulogize MLK.

Nina Simone – Deep-dish vocalizing and piano from the perennially confrontational jazz chanteuse. Described as “a rose coming through cement,” the inimitable Simone mixes socially conscious songs—“Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”—with incendiary poetry. Observes commentator Rev. Al Sharpton: “You could hear in her voice our pain, but also our defiance.” Simone is not the only artist with protest on her mind. Powerhouse jazz drummer Max Roach and his band contribute “It’s Time” and his wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, takes us to “Africa.”

In the midst of the festival, NASA sent a man to the moon, an event greeted with cool indifference in Harlem, where a heroin epidemic raged and Black cultural awareness was experiencing a radical re-awakening. In the words of one onlooker: “They could have used that money and energy to improve people’s lives in Harlem and everyplace.” This festival was a joyous act of resistance.

Summer of Soul, photographed by TV producer Hal Tulchin and directed by Questlove for re-release with new talking heads, is that rare socio-political commentary that makes us stand up and holler. It deserves to stand alongside Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Wattstax, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Live Aid, Soulsville, The Wrecking Crew and 20 Feet from Stardom as one of the all-time most electrifying music documentaries.

In theaters and streaming on July 2.

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