Summer of Soul
1969, a year remembered mostly for the Woodstock Festival and the Moon landing, also played host to another, sadly oft-forgotten gathering. Nearly 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park over six weekends, with performances from such legendary acts as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King and Fifth Dimension. Directed by Questlove, Summer of Soul tells the story of this event, of its origins and its organisers, and captures its magnificence.
Combining a series of well-executed and personal talking heads with incredible archive footage, the film displays how the festival moved from moments of joyous celebration to serene remembrance. It’s about as good as music documentaries get, largely due to the abundance and quality of the footage, which has been resurrected from a basement where it sat forgotten for half a century. It seems every moment was captured in glorious eye-popping colour, and it is an absolute joy to sit back and soak in the atmosphere of the occasion.
The film is a visual and auditory treat, brought together by excellent editing. The performances from the artists are a toe-tapping delight from start to end, and viewers will be hard pressed not to tear up at the more emotional moments. Particular highlights include Nina Simone’s spine-tingling performance and a rendition of Precious Lord, Take My Hand by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples (a favourite of the late Martin Luther King Jr).
The greatest aspect of the production, however, is how it manages to wind the spectacle of the music into the wider history and culture of the Black community in America. The 1960s had seen the assassination of Dr King and Malcolm X, along with an increase in poverty and the escalation of the Vietnam War. It was a decade with moments of promise but a disappointing end. This is addressed repeatedly and to great effect, particularly when the elated reaction to the Moon landing from many white Americans is juxtaposed with the apathetic reaction of their Black countrymen, with many of the latter highlighting the hypocrisy that America could fund a moon shot but not feed the people of Harlem. The cultural festival was the beacon of empowerment that they needed, which is highlighted magnificently here.
Excellently constructed and lovingly produced, Summer of Soul is the must-see documentary of this year’s sunny season.
Summer of Soul is released digitally on demand on 16th July 2021.
Watch the trailer for Summer of Soul here: