In Questlove’s brilliant “Summer of Soul”, a musical celebration of black joy finally has its time


Summer of Soul (… or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised)

Documentary featuring the music of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach and the 5th Dimension. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Streaming on Disney Plus starting July 2. 117 minutes

In musical terms, the summer of 1969 is remembered for Woodstock, a three-day festival in a farmer’s field in upstate New York that drew over 400,000 people and defined an era of joy and joy. of juvenile rebellion.

That same summer, 300,000 people gathered in a New York City public park for the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-weekend celebration of black music and identity that has been nearly forgotten over the past half-year. century.

So far. “Summer of Soul,” a documentary that marks the film debut of great musical thinker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer / co-frontman of hip-hop group Roots, seeks to rekindle faded memories of an important melodic moment and also to historical wrong.

His brilliant restoration of footage found from many hours of unseen video recording of the event represents not only top quality film – it won two top awards at Sundance 2021, where it premiered – but also a lesson. heartbreaking story and a challenge for the present and future times.

Woodstock captured all of the (mostly white) press in ’69 and beyond, not only for his many acclaimed rock and pop performances, from Jimi Hendrix to The Who, but also for his savvy branding and marketing. The latter included an Oscar-winning documentary, an accompanying soundtrack and the radio hit “Woodstock”, written by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who had not even attended the festival.

The Harlem Cultural Festival had none of these promotional perks, although it was originally filmed with the intention of being broadcast on TV, until the executive suite weasels decided they couldn’t. not make money with a “Black Woodstock”. Fortunately, however, the video has survived 50 years of storage in the basement, with its vibrant colors and pristine sound miraculously preserved from the long wait.

The Harlem fest deserves to be remembered not just for its stellar music – electrifying performances by soul, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin Diaspora greats like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone , Mahalia Jackson, BB King, Max Roach and Hugh Masekela – but for his contribution to a societal awakening that continues today.

As Questlove notes via archival footage and recent interviews with artists, participants and cultural commentators, the summer of 69 saw the rallying cry assertion of “Black Is Beautiful” (most recently asserted as “Black joy ”) to materialize.

The sentiment is perhaps best expressed in Simone’s celebration and exhortation song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, which is part of her Harlem fest set which is one of the many highlights of “Summer of Drunk”.

Other highlights include a spirited performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”, in which he uses a keyboard riff that hints at the upcoming “Superstition” funk. We also see Stevie playing drums on a number instead of his signature clavinet, attesting to the extent of his musical talent.

Soul pop group The 5th Dimension, dressed in matching outfits with orange, yellow and red fringes, wows the crowd with “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In”, their psychedelic R&B to a popular tune from the Broadway musical “Hair”.

Sly and the Family Stone conductor Sly Stone leads his diverse rock / R & B combo through catchy ‘Everyday People’ and ‘Higher’ songs that will also get the Woodstock hordes moving a few weeks later – but now we know that the Harlem Cultural Festival had them first.

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The power of the music and feelings of “Summer of Soul” is even more evident when Questlove notes that one of the busiest Sundays of the Harlem Multi-Weekend Festival was July 20, the same day that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. .

Instead of staying at home to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make exploration history on television, some 50,000 Harlem residents came in person to watch Wonder, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and Gladys Knight and the Pips are making music history on stage.

Questlove includes interview clips with attendees who say the billions of dollars spent on the moon landing could be better used to help places like Harlem, which at the time was in the throes of a heroin epidemic that aggravated. This revolutionary spirit endures and “Summer of Soul” is there with it.

Peter Howell is a Toronto film critic. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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