Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson (director)
16 July 2021 (released)
14 July 2021
It’s incredible to think that the film of The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, attended be 300,000 people, has gone unseen and virtually forgotten until now. The power of the music, the characters, the sheer luminance of the whole event should have been celebrated as much if not more than the upstate Woodstock. Thankfully we now have it and is the backbone to this brilliant documentary that perfectly balances and uses the music to provide an illuminating insight into the social history of Harlem at the time and the wider civil rights movement in the US.
Getting the festival off the ground was no mean feat and there’s a profile of Tony Lawrence the charismatic character who oiled the wheels of the powers that be to get this off the ground. And then there’s Hal Tulchin who filmed it and pitched it as the Black Woodstock. Between them they got if off the ground and got the performers.
The artists themselves are at the top of their game, sensing something special in the air, and it’s wonderful to see those still living reminiscing about the day while watching the footage. This is complemented by the memories of those who attended; the joy of being part of a huge crowd of black people celebrating their music and culture, with some nice anecdotes like fibbing to mum about where they were going.
And the culture is integral to this film too as the makers take us into the melting pot that was Harlem at the time with some wonderful contemporary footage. Not overlooked is Spanish Harlem, the Latin culture and musicians who also performed at the event.
Summer of Soul goes so much wider as it introduces the gospel artists emphasising the importance of faith within the community. There’s blues, jazz, Motown represented by Gladys Night and the Pips and Stevie Wonder. And the unique Sly and the Family Stone with his west coast soul, rock and psychedelia. and many, many other outstanding performances.
Politics is everywhere; it can’t be avoided or escaped, though it’s never overpowering or didactive. There’s the welcome of the Republican Mayor of New York of the time, a reminder of a brutal decade of assassinations of civil rights leaders, volatile social issues and the tragedy of the heroin epidemic in Harlem. Taken to task is the 1969 moon landing, a triumph for some though many questioning it’s worth and cost; money that could have spent in the communities. This frustration and anger charges a remarkable and visceral performances of Backlash Blues by Nina Simone.
Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s film is technically stunning, beautifully restored audio and visual which along with superb editing by Joshua L. Pearson blends and intercuts the music and images perfectly. The talking heads are never incongruous always informative as artists, journalists and concert goers provide context and insight. A truly outstanding film.
This is must see cinema, and the best place to see this film, is the cinema from 16 July, it will also be available on Disney + from 30 July.