Dir. Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson
Featuring: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B King, The Fifth Dimension, Sly & The Family Stone
Released: Sundance Film Festival 2021
1969 was one hell of a year in American history. As war continued to rage overseas in Vietnam, 250,000 protestors descended on Washington DC in pursuit of peace. As the Apollo 11 mission saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men on the moon, Chappaquiddick Affair Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car into a lake. Three members of Charles Manson’s cult descended upon the Hollywood hills, murdering five people including Sharon Tate and her unborn child, killing in the same moment the illusion and idea of the Golden age of Hollywood. The Woodstock festival, attended by over 400,000 people, became a shimmering beacon of hope in a year of tumult and amidst a tidal wave of change. And just 100 miles away from Woodstock, over the course of six weekends, beneath the beating sun in Harlem, history was made that wouldn’t see the light of day until now, 50 years later.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul, rightfully and righteously takes its place amongst the all-time great music festival films as the Harlem Cultural Festival is restored to its deserved place in documented history. Brimming with soul and the spirit of a revolution that could neither be quelled or quietened no matter the footage’s unbelievable five decades in the dark, Questlove presents here an overwhelming act of history being reclaimed for the Black community. History being written in the here and now as those hot summer days in the summer of ‘69 chime with and resonate with the turbulent times we live in today.
Whilst the meat of Summer of Soul is Questlove’s unintrusive, self-sustaining presentation of long-lost footage of performances that are nothing short of transcendent from the likes of Stevie Wonder, B.B King, Nina Simone, and Sly and The Family Stone amongst others, the musician-turned-movie-maker’s collaboration with editor Joshua L. Pearson merges talking head segments with uncut concert footage in a way that holds a rhythm and timbre all of its own. Not dissimilar to Spike Lee’s recent direction of David Byrne’s An American Utopia stage show, Questlove demonstrates a unique capacity to authentically evoke the experience of live music for an at-home audience. Cutting between the audience as they ebb and flow, sway and sweat, and getting up close and personal with the performers as they exalt themselves on stage, Questlove and Pearson have taken the existing material that was unearthed only a couple of years ago and somehow seamlessly created a time capsule to the past and a sense of vitality and urgency that is emphatically present.
Questlove’s film is a shining beacon held up in celebration of the time and place where Black Power, Black is Beautiful, and the other slogans and mantras that led an entire social, cultural, and ethnic movement came to fruition and seized the global consciousness. As we watch such wonders as Stevie Wonder drum soloing, Nina Simone reciting the brilliant poem ‘Are You Ready?’, Mahalia Jackson gospel-scatting the crowd onto another plane of existence, and Sly and the Family Stone sending a literal human tidal wave towards the stage in an expression of jubilant celebration and emancipation, the hopes, fears, dreams, and lived experiences of the Black community are painted large across the canvas for all to see. When taken in alongside anecdotes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final moments, and the knowledge that the Harlem Cultural Festival was held mere months after his death, the anguish and need for change reverberates through every sung note, every plucked string.
Against a backdrop of moon landings, fighting in Vietnam, police brutality, the death of Martin Luther King Jr., a crisis of faith, and the death of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the dawn of a new incumbent decade of paranoia and cultural revolution, ‘The Black Woodstock’ as it was once known has been put where it belongs – in front of our eyes and planted in our hearts. Summer of Soul is a spine-tingling experience that sonically staggers and frequently overwhelms to behold. This revolution may not have been televised fifty years ago, but you can feel it marching on and on and on through the power of this film.
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