'Summer of Soul': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Summer of Soul
Courtesy of Mass Distraction Media

Sly Stone in 'Summer of Soul'

A New Year's gift of spectacular vintage.

In his directing debut, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson delves into forgotten footage from a 1969 Harlem concert series that showcased a who's who of Black acts.

Not many people know his name, but half a century ago Tony Lawrence created something extraordinary in the middle of New York City. And few people know the name Hal Tulchin, but he documented the feat. It was called the Harlem Cultural Festival, and over six weekends in the summer of 1969 it showcased more than five dozen acts and drew 300,000 people, who were charged not a cent to see — are you ready? — Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone. To name just a few of the artists, some in their prime and some groundbreaking up-and-comers, who graced the outdoor stage.

But this monumental alignment of the stars — what some would later refer to as the Black Woodstock — generated little media attention, in part because it was overshadowed by the actual Woodstock, which took place during the Harlem event's penultimate weekend and just a couple of hours north, turning Max Yasgur's farm into ground zero for a generation. Still, that's a feeble excuse for the dearth of headlines, or for the networks' lack of interest in TV producer-director Tulchin's expertly shot (on spec) footage of the high-voltage lineup. The local CBS station aired a few highlights, but on a national scale there were no takers.

Thus the subtitle of Summer of Soul, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's electrifying documentary on those concerts and the political climate in which they unfolded — a subtitle that riffs on an immortal turn of phrase from the late great Gil Scott-Heron: Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised. The footage sat in storage for decades, until Summer of Soul's producers set the ball rolling to give it its long-overdue spotlight. 

It's no surprise that Thompson, an accomplished and celebrated musician, has a knack for revealing the emotional core of concert performances. At the helm of a feature-length film for the first time, he also lends the long-lost material the eye of an assured director, approaching it on three eloquently interwoven narrative tracks: the knockout concerts themselves; a piercing capsule portrait of 1969 as a turning point in Black identity; and a collection of lovely, charged Boomer reminiscences from those who were there, some onstage and some in the audience. The film captures several of them as they view the previously unseen footage, dazzling evidence of a moment in time that seemingly had been written out of the official story.

The result is deeply felt on both sides of the timeline, drawing clear parallels between two galvanizing historical periods, then and now. An opening-night selection of Sundance's first virtual edition, Summer of Soul is as thoughtful as it is rousing, a welcome shot of adrenaline to kick off not just a film festival but a new year.

On the evidence of the film, Lawrence, the Harlem fest's producer and emcee, was a schmoozer extraordinaire with a predilection for sharp suits and puffy shirts. (He's also something of a mystery, his current whereabouts unknown, despite the filmmakers' concerted efforts to find him.) Lawrence secured the support of the city's Parks Department and the sponsorship of Maxwell House (Thompson includes an eye-opening Africa-centric commercial for the coffee brand). Even with financial support, though, there was no money for lights, requiring that the stage for the late-afternoon shows face west. The liberal mayor, John V. Lindsay, receives a warm reception when introduced onstage by Lawrence as "our blue-eyed soul brother." But relations with the NYPD were another matter, and the Black Panthers signed on to provide security.

In comparison with familiar scenes of Woodstock's countercultural convergence, the Harlem festival, with its all-ages audience, is a downright wholesome affair. Announcements from the stage concern found wallets, not bad acid. For Musa Jackson, a child at the time who attended with his family, and whose delighted reactions to the footage bookend the film perfectly, the fest was "the ultimate Black barbecue" and "the first time I'd seen so many of us." Movingly, this was the case for performers as well. Gladys Knight recalls being "totally, totally taken aback" by the crowd she encountered in Mount Morris Park, a gathering that one attendee describes as "a sea of Black."

Among the highlights of Summer of Soul is the chance to witness Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo, of The 5th Dimension, watching, for the first time, their group's performance that long-ago summer. On waves of love from the audience, their younger selves' exuberance rises. So do the couple's emotions as they remember the feeling of playing their first show in Harlem. For a pop-oriented group deemed "not Black enough" by some, connecting with that uptown crowd was profoundly important. A potent sense of kinship between fans and artists pulses through every frame of the doc's concert scenes.

The music runs the gamut: classic R&B (King), contemporary gospel (the Edwin Hawkins Singers, featuring Dorothy Combs Morrison's earthy contralto), Motown (Gladys and those exhilaratingly synchronized Pips; a smooth and scorching David Ruffin, fresh off the Temptations), newfangled pop (The 5th Dimension), psychedelic soul (Sly and his utopian big-band constellation, complete with female trumpeter and white drummer). The jazz ranges from bebop legend Roach to avant-gardist Sonny Sharrock, Latin maestro Ray Barretto and South African innovator Hugh Masekela. There's comedy too: briefly excerpted stage routines and, in a post-credits coda, a bit of faux conflict between Stevie Wonder and his musical director, Gene Key.

With 39 songs on the soundtrack, most don't play in their entirety, but it's a testament to Tulchin's dynamic footage (he deployed five video cameras), Thompson's astute directorial choices and the exquisite editing of Joshua L. Pearson that a nagging sense of "snippet-itis" never intrudes. The music flows, enhanced rather than hindered by the intercutting of new interviews and vintage documentary footage.

The numbers that do play out in full are stunners, the showstopper being a six-minute sequence likely to send shivers up your spine while rearranging the molecules in your earthly form. The gospel song in question, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," was Martin Luther King's favorite, and it was only a year since his murder when Mavis Staples and her idol, Mahalia Jackson, dug into its verses and soared.

Even for non-gospel acts, that genre's alchemy of lament and rejoicing expresses itself in many of the performances. This is the fuse that burns through Summer of Soul, and, arguably, through much of American Black culture: a resilient way of confronting deep-rooted violence and injustice. Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the film's exceptional selection of interviewees, recalls the strength and comfort she derived from Nina Simone's records when she was being harassed by white students at the University of Georgia, where she was one of the first two Black students to break the color barrier in 1961.

The doc ponders the long-view perspectives of leading activists — among them Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson (a concert participant as a leader of the Operation Breadbasket initiative) and Denise Oliver-Velez, formerly of the Young Lords — and revels in coming-of-age memories. Sometimes they're one and the same. Writer-musician Greg Tate delivers incisive commentary on the pivotal shift among Black Americans, circa 1969, from identifying as "Negro," and how that was expressed in music and fashion as well as politics.

Thompson and Pearson's fluent interweaving of the concert performances and the social backdrop reaches a sublime peak in a sequence that combines the Staples' "It's Been a Change" with festivalgoers' reactions, for a local news report, to the moon landing, which coincided with the fest's third weekend. Song and sound bites alike signal a grassroots awakening.

That Summer of Soul looks and sounds as good as it does is a considerable technical achievement. But more than that, the preservation of Tulchin's 50-year-old footage restores a vital piece to the chronicle of a period defined by social unrest, antiwar fervor, artistic trailblazing and liberation movements that still reverberate today. Tulchin, who died in 2017, hoped that this documentary would be his legacy. There's no question of that, for him and for event creator and high-spirited showman Lawrence.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a statement of Black pride. The power of Thompson's film is the way it taps into the urgency of the moment on a personal level as well as the wider scale, and its bone-deep understanding that they're inseparable. "Are you ready, Black people?" the commandingly regal Simone asks the audience. Get ready, music and movie lovers: For two spellbinding hours, the communion between performers and a summer crowd leaps off the screen and across the years.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Vulcan Productions, Concordia Studio, Play/Action Pictures, LarryBilly Productions, Mass Distraction Media, RadicalMedia
Director: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Producers: David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, Joseph Patel
Executive producers: Jen Isaacson, Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Jody Allen, Ruth Johnston, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Beth Hubbard, Davis Guggenheim, Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, David Barse, Ron Eisenberg, Sheila Johnson, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Director of photography: Shawn Peters
Editor: Joshua L. Pearson
Sales: Cinetic Media

117 minutes