Directed by: #QuestloveJawn
Documentary film review by: Brian Penn
I was always dubious of films with long sub-titles; what exactly were they trying to say. Why complicate the headline with pointless detail and create pretension where none should exist? After watching this magnificent documentary I understood why Summer of Soul needed the additional context. The 1960s represented a period of social change and political turbulence. A burgeoning media was knee deep in era defining events, but how could they have missed the Harlem Cultural Festival staged between June and August 1969.
Aside from local TV coverage, film of the festival has been largely forgotten and unused until now. Producer Hal Tulchin recorded the full concert series but struggled to sell the product. The Woodstock music festival happened in August 1969, and Harlem’s equivalent was fighting for column inches and airtime. This new film by Questlove Jawn brilliantly encapsulates the spirit and mood of a unique era.
As a documentary it’s beautifully constructed and allows the event to tell its own story. Super sharp editing quickly puts the festival in historical context; the Kennedys, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated in the last six years; and the Vietnam War was at its brutal height. Festival footage is mixed with interviews featuring the participants and those who actually attended. Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension spoke movingly of the acceptance they gained as an R & B act purely by performing at the event. Festival goers marvelled at the thought of a free concert in Mt Morris Park just a few blocks from home.
The festival coincided with the Apollo XI moon landing in July and TV reporters gauged the opinion of attendees. Their response was scathing but searingly honest. Why spend millions of dollars sending men to the moon when so many are starving in crime ridden cities? Even with the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to resist the logic of a well-rehearsed argument. It was undoubtedly a celebration of blackness and presence of the Black Panthers as security was a reminder of the political imperative.
The music was nevertheless, front and centre as some of the greatest R & B acts took their turn. B.B. King, Nina Simone and the Staple Singers are captured in their prime; while the emerging genius of 18-year-old Stevie Wonder is a joy to behold. Gladys Knight & The Pips also delivered a storming version of ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. But the tour de force belonged to Sly & the Family Stone who had the rare distinction of playing at both Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival.
The Summer of Soul provides the perfect showcase for a sadly neglected event, and plugs a yawning gap in the lexicon of popular culture. Its timing with Woodstock was unfortunate but no less meaningful and influential. We should be grateful that Questlove Jawn has brought this festival to the big screen. Historical events should be properly recorded and the summer of 1969 now has a sparkling new entry.