I love a good concert film. When music is celebrated in tandem with the people and history of a given moment, it’s often sublime. I remember feeling that way with the Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace film and Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars over the last few years. Well, thanks to Ahmir Thompson, better known to audiences worldwide as Questlove (or ?uestlove) from The Roots, we have another fantastic entry in Summer of Soul. Using a combination of interviews and footage unseen for over 50 years, he weaves a genuinely fun and moving chronicle of black culture as the 60s came to a close.
The film is centered on the Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series that took place over six weekends in 1969. As the film points out in opening text, this was the same summer as Woodstock, though obviously the latter got way more media attention and has a much larger place in America’s collective history. Questlove’s point here is to expose audiences to an even bigger event that they might not even know existed (I certainly didn’t), and how crucial it was to the black community.
In large part, he succeeds, thanks to two major elements. For one, the music is just fantastic. This festival featured gospel, blues, funk, and rock that got people dancing and thinking, and I’m not just talking about the crowds in New York. People in the very audience where I was watching were getting into it. A few people in particular – who look like they were old enough to have attended the original festival – were openly talking back to the screen as performers asked them to participate. Normally this would be considered highly rude, but everyone was in on it, myself included. There’s a point during Nina Simone’s performance where she literally says, “Don’t wait for the person next to you to start singing, because they might be waiting on you,” which was interpreted by the whole room as license to just let loose. I’m not sure the film was intended as audience participation, but that’s certainly what it became. It would be a special movie for this fact alone.
Just about every major artist elicited some enthusiastic response from the crowd, as one after another, A-list acts from the 50s-70s made their way onto Harlem’s stage. And this was a lineup made to impress. Hell, the first bit of footage we see has Stevie Wonder get up from his piano, work his way to the back of the stage, and start drumming for the next tune. “Wait, STEVIE CAN DRUM?!” exclaimed someone in the theatre. I thought the same thing, equally stunned, though I kept my mouth shut. But even I, a stickler for theatre etiquette, eventually couldn’t contain myself. About midway through (after we’d already heard from the likes of Mahalia Jackson, The 5th Dimension, and The Staple Singers; I mean, just, wow), I hear a woman talking over the footage before it cut to her being interviewed on camera, and from the minute her dulcet tones first creeped in, talking, I let out an audible, “Oh damn” in that oh so satisfied way, because here came Gladys Knight. If you were at all raised on the Motown sound, this lineup is an absolute treasure trove.
The other key part of this film is in the interviews themselves, and oddly enough, it’s also partly a criticism, only because I wanted so much more of this one bit. Questlove basically splits the interviews into two categories. One of them is the standard documentary interview, with a person on stage giving their testimonial while occasionally being asked questions. But the other is downright amazing. For several of the subjects, Questlove interviews them as they’re watching the raw footage. This is incredible. Some of the people are journalists and historians, others performers who were there (Marilyn McCoo among the more prominent ones), and some were people who happened to be there and attended the shows, allowing them a rare moment to reminisce in real time about an experience from five decades before.
It’s absolutely magical the way their eyes light up seeing this stuff after so long, and it’s palpable to the point that some of the tears being shed weren’t just on the screen. It may not be entirely unique, but it was a novel direction to take in a film like this, and I wish there had been more. All in all, the split is about 70-30 in favor of normal interviews. I would have hoped for closer to even, but that’s just me possibly wanting too much of a good thing.
There is one mild drawback, and this is barely merits mentioning, but it’s enough to affect the grade just a smidge. There’s a lot of good contextual footage about the lives of black Americans in the 60s filtered through this event, and most of it makes sense. There’s a tremendous part where, midway through the six weekends, the Moon Landing happened, and this is where the festival gets the most attention. Local media interviews people in the crowd about their reaction to it, and most of the responses fall along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s cool, but how many poor black families in Harlem could have been given proper food and housing for what it cost to put three white men on a space rock?” I don’t share the cynicism, but my experience is not theirs, and for them I’m guessing this was a perfect encapsulation of their social struggle, and in that way it’s profound how many people shared the same sentiment.
These tangents are all well and good, but the film’s subtitle implies that there was something a bit more sinister going on than the footage bears out. There wasn’t so much a “revolution” at this festival, but a celebration of music in several forms. It doesn’t appear to have been some sort of rallying point to launch a civil rights campaign, and even if it was, there doesn’t seem to have been any conscious effort by authorities to snuff it out (apart from a brief mention early on that the Black Panthers were largely in charge of security because the NYPD didn’t want to devote the resources). I thought maybe the news reports about the Moon Landing might have been framed as black people being ungrateful in the face of a watershed moment in history, which would be a perfect example of implicit bias and institutional racism. But again, nothing in what was shown really hints at it. There’s no real indication that the footage couldn’t be shown, just that it wasn’t, because the production company that filmed it had trouble selling it as a film or TV show at the time. There wasn’t any active censorship that the movie delineates. Even the comparison to Woodstock is a touch misleading, as the Harlem Cultural Festival was already in Week 5 by the time Woodstock rolled around, and that’s when Nina Simone performed (including some mildly troubling talk about killing white folks to achieve their ends, which if you saw the Oscar-nominated documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? wouldn’t be new information, but still), so it’s not like Harlem was hurting for headliners at the time, or that Woodstock poached their acts.
I concede that I might be reading far too much into this, but it felt like the film was hinting at ulterior motives that the footage and the interviews didn’t really justify. It doesn’t detract too much, but it’s worth noting. What really matters is how much this movie celebrates a moment seemingly lost in time, with some of the greatest musicians of all time expertly showcasing their craft. I mean, Sly and the Family Stone’s performance is worth the price of admission alone. Questlove sought to expose audiences to something that they should have already known about, but does so in a joyous and soul-stirring way. When I’m in my late 30s and in a theatre full of people way older than me ready to dance in the aisles, you know you’ve done something right.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy concert films? Who’s your favorite Motown act? Let me know!