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TV/Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘Summer of Soul’ (dir. Questlove)

It’s raw. It’s real. It’s infectious. It’s expressive. It’s eruptive. It’s uplifting. It’s intoxicating.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Hulu and playing in theaters. The documentary is Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, and it had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in January.

You know how every April (well, almost every April) we tune in to watch the Coachella livestream? Well, this is essentially a Harlem Cultural Festival livestream. Watching those livestreams or seeing people attending concerts on television, you can’t ask those attendees what attracted them to go see those artists perform. With this doc, you hear from so many points of view as to what stood out to them from this festival. Hearing everyone’s unique stories gives you the sense of smell and sound and feel of the moment.

You’ll see performance footage from the summer concert series from Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Sly & The Family Stone, and more with insight, interviews, and narration from festival performers Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Mavis Staples, as well as Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sheila E.

Gathering the perspectives of activists, cultural experts, political analysts, and journalists, you will really feel like one of the 300,000+ people who got to witness it firsthand. It’s an enveloping experience that conveys the soulful and passionate expression the event aimed to accomplish in the first place. In a time that we have been starved of our craving for live music, this is the next best thing.

It’s already a critically acclaimed doc, but reading about it just can’t capture the feeling you get from seeing and experiencing the film. A deep dive examining the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, audiences discover everything they never knew about the festival that took place the same summer as Woodstock and just 100 miles away. The pop culture event was seemingly swept under the rug (unless you were one of the 300,000 who attended the festival in person over the six weekends it ran that summer, of course). The local news mentioned it, but the mainstream media chose to ignore it and refused to cover the event.

Luckily for us who didn’t catch the festival that summer, Hal Tulchin immortalized the festival on film. General Foods sponsored the event, so they commissioned Tulchin to document and film the fest. This footage — over 40 hours of never-before-seen footage originally shot by Hal Tulchin — has remained in storage ever since and was sitting in a basement for 50 years before being unearthed. It is revelatory to think that something of this magnitude was able to successfully be translated to film, which makes it all the more disappointing that it is just now seeing the light of day.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s music. It’s a documentary. It’s passionate. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s infectious. It’s expressive. It’s eruptive. It’s uplifting. It’s intoxicating. I dare you to watch this and not move. You’re going to be bopping your head, tapping your foot, full on dancing while watching this. It’s infectious. Do you like jazz? Do you like soul? Do you like the blues? Do you like gospel? Do you like MUSIC? This is for you.

One performance in particular from Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson was a standout for me. Two vocal powerhouses delivering raw emotion with their belting vocals and beautifully wavering notes. Seeing a young Gladys Knight & The Pips just goes to show how great of a vocalist she is, even today. Watch a clip of their performance of “Heard It Through The Grapevine”:

Chronicling the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, aka “the Black Woodstock,” set against the backdrop that was the racially intense 1960s, It’s difficult to describe this documentary. It’s part music film but also part historical because of the way it is framed culturally. At the intersection of Black history, culture, music, and fashion, it is a celebration of everything Black. This event deserves to go down in the history books as a pillar in Black history, and I think this film will play a major part in that, but it is up to us as a society to make it happen.

If you just watch the trailer, you might think this is a colorful documentary about a forgotten music festival. But upon closer inspection, there is some one-of-a-kind insight into the time period in an around 1969 involving the overlap of the racial divide, the Black Panther Party, activism, politics, the New York City government, church and religion, and more. Black culture was at a turning point in the late ‘60s, and a lot hinged on the events that took place around the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969.

You’re going to get a music history lesson combined with a rich understanding of the the cultural and societal rhythms that formed the bonds between Harlem and the areas and people it influenced.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Hulu.

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