In New York in the Summer of 1969, a concert took place that would help set the stage for the development of popular music over at least the next two decades. This show was thrown together in an unlikely location and was made up of a wide variety of bands and musical acts from all over the country. You might already be thinking of Woodstock, which isn’t wrong, but this description fits another music festival that was equally impressive in its own way and almost completely lost to history: The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of concerts that were held in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City from June 29 to August 24, 1969. It was intended to be a celebration of black music, arts, and culture at a time when the black power movement was first becoming nationwide and mainstream. Funded by the City of New York and a handful of corporate sponsors, the event compiled talented black musical artists from every corner of the nation. This made for an incredible show where admission was completely free of charge. Despite the event’s size and the notoriety of the performers, the Festival was covered minimally by the press and quickly became a thing of the past, existing only as a near-mythological whisper in the memory of those who had been there.
This nearly-forgotten chapter of music history is the subject of Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the documentary film from first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Debuting in theaters and on Hulu July 2, it is composed primarily of archival footage of the event that had somehow remained hidden for 50 years. It had been filmed with great care because the crew that captured it had intended to sell the footage to a television network, but ultimately found no one willing to air the event (hence the subtext of the film’s title). After that, it remained in a basement for five decades until discovered by Questlove, whose desire to share it with the world caused him to make the jump to filmmaking to do that.
When you look at the lineup of the Harlem Cultural Festival, it’s hard to believe the concert wasn’t marketable. The highly popular late 1960’s group The 5th Dimension and blues legend B.B. King both performed. A 19-year old Stevie Wonder was there, as well as Gladys Knight, who still sang alongside The Pips. David Ruffin, newly departed from The Temptations, gave a solo performance. Gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sang a duet on the same stage. Singer and activist Nina Simone enthralled the crowd with her voice and poetry. Sly & the Family Stone brought their provocative biracial and female-inclusive ensemble and played to one of the most raucous receptions of the entire concert. All of these iconic performances have been brought back to life with a beautiful digital remaster.
Summer of Soul is unlike any other film that I have ever seen. It features interviews and commentary like any other documentary, but those take a backseat to the footage of these incredible performances. Questlove made his career as a musician, and he brings that touch to the making of this film by allowing the viewer to sit back and take in entire songs exactly as they were performed during that summer in Harlem so many years ago. The musical acts are supplemented by commentary, but the best parts of the performances are allowed to stand alone. It’s very well done and the right treatment for such great footage that has never been seen before.
The footage itself is absolutely stunning. It was shot in gorgeous full color using technology that was advanced for the time. The original crew decided to arrange the entire stage so that it could be lit perfectly by the natural light of the sun. This adds a degree of depth and realism that makes it easy to forget how long ago these events took place. The result is the feeling that you’re there in the park, viewing the concert with the rest of the crowd. For some of the musicians who were already in their 50s or older at the time of the Festival, this has to be some of the best concert footage of them that exists anywhere.
Apart from the concert footage and interviews with performers and attendees, there is a theme throughout the film regarding the state of Black American culture at the end of the 1960s. The optimism that came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been stamped out by a rash of assassinations of prominent black and socially liberal leaders. While the American mainstream was obsessed with the Vietnam War and the Apollo 11 moon landing, Black America was much more concerned with economic and social equality. The Harlem Cultural Festival embodied this historic moment where, for the first time, the nation’s disparate black subcultures coalesced into a single outspoken creative force on the world stage. Summer of Soul includes enough information to make this point perfectly without detracting from the upbeat celebration of music that is the central focus of the film.
There’s really nothing bad to say about Summer of Soul. The original crew did an incredible job with their cinematography, and the remastered footage looks amazing for its age. It provides a good time with great musical performances while also weaving in enough historical context to demonstrate that the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 was as much about a cultural movement as it was a celebration of music. Sit back and enjoy this one.
About SUMMER OF SOUL
Synopsis: Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a feature documentary about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which celebrated African American music and culture, and promoted Black pride and unity.
Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock, Stevie Wonder
Runtime: 1 Hour, 57 Minutes
Releases: July 2nd, 2021 (USA)
My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).