Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
Stevie Wonder, Nine Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips and many, many more
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Summer of Soul is one of the best.
The year was 1969, America was experiencing a tumultuous time of revolution and upheaval, and a multi-day music concert was about to epitomise the age. You probably think we’re talking about Woodstock, right? Nah, mate. While that collection of hippies, mud and future stockbrokers was an iconic gig, another show was taking place not so far away.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a huge concert that took place over six weeks, bringing in some of the best acts of the day. And if you haven’t heard about it, don’t worry, you’re in the majority. All footage of the gig sat in a basement for five decades, with only the memories of the attendees and artists to mark the occasion. Until now, that is, with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson making his directorial debut with the wonderful, life-affirming Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).
Part concert movie, part documentary, Summer of Soul cleverly cuts between beautifully restored footage from 1969, talking head pieces with concert attendees or surviving artists and historical footage of events from the era. There are a lot of moving parts, however Questlove manages to successfully keep the plates spinning throughout, fusing the songs and subjects together in a way that feels poetic and musical.
Even if you’re just keen to see some of the great artists, you’re in for a treat. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips plus stunning gospel singers (the latter of whom get perhaps just a touch too much screen time) all pump out astonishing live performances before massive crowds of predominantly Black people and PoC, in a series of free gigs that were put on by organiser Tony Lawrence in conjunction with the city of New York and white Republican (!) Mayor John Lindsay.
However, those wanting to dig deeper into the history of the era will also get a fascinating glimpse into the engines of social change and how much has been achieved, as well as how far we still have yet to go.
Music festivals can be wonderful or terrible. Look at the Lord of the Flies-esque nightmare of consumerism and fevered privilege that occurred at Woodstock ‘99 – where the national guard ended up being called in! – as an example of the latter.
However, a good, well-organised festival with the right acts and the right crowd can open hearts, change minds and enrich the soul. The same can be said for a good music documentary, and Summer of Soul is one of the best. So, kick back, put on your dancing trackie-daks and drink in an important, toe-tapping bit of cultural gold that has been absent from the public eye for far, far too long.