Questlove's 'Summer Of Soul' Sizzles
By Stereo Williams
Summer Of Soul, the riveting new Questlove-directed documentary about the seemingly-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, is an explosion of Black beauty, culture, pride and music. After being hailed at the Sundance Film Festival and following weeks of positive buzz, the movie premiered July 2nd on Hulu and offers a glimpse into that heady summer, with performances from legendary artists like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Sly & The Family Stone. And it showcases Questlove's passion and precision for documenting the spirit of Black music.
The film opens with recollections from attendees, including Musa Jackson, who recalls his being a small child wandering amongst the sun-soaked throngs alongside his parents. Then Summer Of Soul shifts back to the Harlem of 1969, via Stevie Wonder's stunning performance, as the Motown icon, switches from keys to drums, ripping through performances of his then-current hits. The festival was held at what was then known as Mt Morris Park (it is now Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem), the brain child of snazzily-dressed promoter Tony Lawrence. He was able to convince the New York City parks department and then-Mayor John Lindsey to host the event and landed a high-profile sponsor in Maxwell House coffee. With assurances that there would be security (in the form of the Black Panthers) and everyone would get paid, he was able to land major names for the festival, like Simone, Wonder, and Sly--as well as other icons like B.B. King and Gladys Knight & The Pips.
The spectrum of Black music highlighted at these shows was staggering; over the course of those six weekends in Harlem, attendees could see psych-rock outfit The Chambers Brothers, alongside Afro-Latin icons Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria, jazz power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln; Motown icons like Wonder, Knight and former Temptation David Ruffin; pioneering South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela; funk pioneers Sly & The Family Stone; and gospel legends like Jackson.
The restoration of these clips is nothing short of a revelation, breathing gorgeous color and life into 50-year old footage that highlights the spectrum of Black beauty both in the crowd and on the stage. Nina Simone's performance crackles with power and energy, as she leads the crowd through "Are You Ready?" and debuts "Young, Gifted and Black." The reactions of present-day Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo to seeing the footage for the first time is powerful; as the Fifth Dimension's poppy psychedelia seemed to run counter to what the music industry considered "Black music" at the time. Sly Stone's closing performance of "Higher" brings Musa Jackson to tears.
The mid-section of the film focuses on both the gospel participants at the festival; with the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the Edwin Hawkins Singers and more showcasing just how much Black music in all of its iterations are connected to the spirit that came soaring out of the Black church, pre-and post-slavery. There is also significant time devoted to the exploration of Afro-Latin music; highlighting the Puerto Rican Barretto and the Cuban Santamaria. There is some awkwardness when Lin-Michael Miranda appears onscreen, advocating for the connections between Black and Latin cultures in New York City; as the 2021 film based on his play In The Heights is at the center of controversy surrounding the erasure of Afro-Latinos.
The film is also gripping in its handling of the socio-political climate of the day. When news crews peruse the crowd for reactions to the news of the 1969 moon landing, the indifference amongst Black patrons, and their recognition that the moon is moot when poverty is rampant, is a brilliantly effective counter to the sentimental gushing from the white Americans in the same footage.
The closest comparison one could make to the Harlem Cultural Festival and these performances is 1972s Wattstax Concert at the Los Angeles Memorial coliseum. That legendary soul festival featured artists from Stax Records, the famed Memphis label of the 60s and 70s; and it was the subject of a film, 1973s Wattstax. But it is staggering that the Harlem Cultural Festival has languished in obscurity for so long. Comparisons were made, then and now, to Woodstock, held the same summer in upstate New York. In an attempt to sell the footage to an indifferent white media base, filmmakers even tried to clumsily re-brand the Harlem Cultural Festival as "the Black Woodstock."
But this was so much more than "the Black Woodstock." Whereas that legendary music festival represented a generation of mostly white youth throwing off the decorum and standards of their parents in an effort to assert themselves and their music; this was an entire people announcing themselves against the backdrop of the most intense racial upheaval the country had seen up to that point.
Black culture was asserting itself in unprecedented, defiantly conscious ways. Afrocentricity had enveloped Black music, fashion and identity; as the Civil Rights Movement morphed into the Black Power/Black Pride movement. With the seeds of Hip-Hop just beginning to gestate, it's not hard to see how certain attitudes from the revolutionary late 1960s would play a part in how the community that birthed Hip-Hop Uptown and in the Bronx was anchored in the spirit of this era.
The film announces "A Questlove Jawn" in its opening credits and you can feel the Roots' drummer care for detail and love of the subject matter throughout Summer Of Soul. The fact that this footage remained unseen for 50 years is a damning testament to mainstream indifference to Black brilliance, but this restoration affirms that that brilliance has never needed the mainstream's cosign. Questlove, through his stories, his Questlove Supreme Podcast, and his production work, has always reveled in his capacity to be a sort of caretaker for the greatness of Black music. Summer Of Soul (Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a love letter to the power of Black music. This festival happened on the heels of tremendous Black pain; and it reminds us that, even as we grapple with our own modern day struggle; our experience is as much a study in resilient genius as it is hardship.