Tits Sundance Award winner is an absolute joy, uncovering a treasure trove of thrilling and breathtaking live music footage (originally captured by television veteran Hal Tulchin) that has remained largely unseen for half a century. While that of Mike Wadleigh Woodstock and the Maysles Give me shelter have long been considered definitive documents of the ups and downs of 1969 pop culture, Summer of the soul makes the two look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that’s been kind of written out of the history books. Capturing Stevie Wonder at a turning point in his career, Mavis Staples in a duet with Mahalia Jackson (“an unreal moment”, says Staples) and Nina Simone at the peak of his performances, the first feature film from director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson mixes music and politics in one of the greatest concert films of all time.
Produced and directed by Tony Lawrence (“a con artist, in the best sense of the term”), and backed by Liberal Republican Mayor of New York, John Lindsay, with the safety of the Black Panthers, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival s takes place over six weekends at Mount Morris Park at a time of profound cultural reassessment, a year after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. In space, Neil Armstrong may have taken a small step for a man, but as one festival-goer puts it: “No matter the moon, let’s go get some of that money in Harlem.”
Cleverly chosen news footage depicts a decade of tension, producing disparate resistances – civil rights and black power. Among those on stage is saxophonist Ben Branch, who King spoke to just before his death, asking Branch to play his favorite song, Precious Lord, Take My Hand. It’s this song that Staples and Jackson perform together in a moment that matches the ecstatic heights of amazing Grace – another long-delayed musical documentary, covering Aretha Franklin’s performances in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Combining wry laughter and insight, interviewees explain how the word “black” has evolved from a term of combat abuse to a term of self-determination and pride. Pioneering journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault remembers the battle she fought to get the New York Times to use “black” rather than “negro”, while others describe the festival’s powerful couple Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach as “shameless Black – they lived this phrase every day ”.
Looking at footage of her band The 5th Dimension performing Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In with tasseled orange costumes, Marilyn McCoo remembers how they were criticized for not being “black enough”, and how happy they were. to be there in Harlem, claiming their identity. Then to top it off, we watch Nina Simone perform a new song, inspired by the directing Being young gifted and black, performed in a voice Reverend Al Sharpton artfully calls “somewhere between hope and mourning.”
While Simone is described as resembling “an African princess,” Hugh Masekela’s performance of Grazing in the Grass seems to transport audiences to another country, soaring from the parks of New York to distant plains. Elsewhere, Sly and the Family Stone epitomize the psychedelic Afrofuturist R&B vibe, with Rose Stone and Cynthia Robinson giving their conductor a run for their money on keyboards and trumpet respectively, and audiences gradually accepting that a drummer White can kick after all.
Gladys Knight recalls that “it wasn’t just about the music; we wanted progress ”; the Edwin Hawkins Singers perform Oh, Happy Day in a lime green harmony; Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaría bring the Latin fusion rhythm; BB King rocks his guitar like a baby while he sings the blues; Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks to the soul; and Stevie Wonder is on the fire – on drums, keyboards and vocals – as he enters a new era of meaningful jazz funk.
The fact that this festival’s “rose running through the cement” has been ignored for so long has served as further proof that “black history is going to be erased.” Yet Questlove’s film begins and ends with festival goer Musa Jackson viewing the uplifting salvaged footage (a sneaky counterpoint to the end of the horror book of Give me shelter) and thanking the filmmaker in tears for having proved to him that “I’m not crazy!” – that it really happened. Thanks to this great film, we can all share this wonder.