I am not exactly the target audience for music documentaries. I don’t even like concerts. They are uncomfortable and impossible to enjoy unless you’re drunk. I am much happier with an excellent sound system and a recording crafted to give me the very best listening experience on…my…couch. I had a date once take me to see the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense“. There probably aren’t two hours I want back more. There was literally nothing engaging about the presentation of the concert and the film actually made me like the music less.
There were 40 hours of footage shot of the Harlem Cultural Festival that sat collecting dust in a basement for nearly 50 years. That footage made its way into the hands of now director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson to create a heart-exploding ode to black people and black culture. It deftly weaves context, humanity, history, and some of the most profoundly talented musical performers into a genre exploding poem of art and humanity. It’s overwhelming to think of all of these artists in one place at the same time.
There’s a real melancholy and some sense of unfairness to think that this footage was kept unseen for so many years (especially when Woodstock, which happened the very same year is thought of as a history defining event) and we share the awe in real time of looking back on such an important, precious jewel being uncovered through the eyes of performers. Singers like Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension see the footage of their youth for the very first time and recall the fine details of their experience.
“We were constantly attacked because we weren’t black enough,” McCoo shares as she reconstructs what it was like to have the chance to perform in Harlem as they experienced such huge success.
This film achieves what I think has been missing in my own experience of live music: what it all means. Summer of Soul is expert in presenting the social context in which the event occurs. We get a sense of what it might have been like and what it meant to be there. We get some understanding of what it was like for the performers, both then and now. And the audience. The crowd is presented so lovingly that you wish you could meet these people. The style of the late 60’s was bold and free and individual. There is so much innocence and anger and hope and defeat and perseverance.
And the music is just incredible.
a feature documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival
Now streaming and in theaters