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Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)  – Review: A Fantastic Documentary About the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 

July 24, 2021

Quick Thoughts: – Grade – A – Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul is an excellent documentary loaded with epic musical performances and valuable history It’s easy to see why it won the Grand Jury Prize, and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Between The Sparks Brothers and Summer of Soul, 2021 has been a strong year for music documentaries that inform the populace about either bands or music festivals that have gone under the radar (or almost disappearing from memory) for decades. Watching the uncovered live music that had been sitting in a basement for nearly 50 years is thrilling as Thompson shows us performances by Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight. The Harlem Cultural Festival (AKA Black Woodstock) drew more than 300,000 people over six free concerts, and happened at an important moment as racial tensions and the Civil Rights Movement were in full effect throughout the country, and the promoters were hoping that the festival would prevent rioting and arrests during the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. 

In between the performances, Thompson loads the documentary with musicians, writers, and celebrities who discuss the timeframe, changing racial climate and how the Black Panthers were hired to do security, as distrust in the NYPD (and their lack of help) forced promoters to bring in alternate security to keep attendees from rushing the various musical acts. It’s wild to think the festival took place during the first moon landing, and it’s enlightening to see the concertgoers showing a lack of concern about the epic undertaking that cost billions. One of the highlights of the documentary is producer Musa Jackson. He attended the festival when he was four years old, and watching him watch the uncovered footage is an emotional experience. 

The 40 hours of concert footage was shot by director Hal Tulchin, who filmed all six of the shows, and couldn’t sell the footage afterwards, so the concert footage sat in a basement for decades. When Thompson became aware of the footage from producer Robert Fyvolent, he said “What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table? How much of a difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment that extinguished any doubt I had that I could do this.” It’s sad to think that the concert footage didn’t reach a wide audience after it happened, but, hopefully now, a lot of people will watch it and want to learn more about the artists and their history.

Final Thoughts – Watch Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) on Hulu.

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