It seems like the opening documentary at Sundance is always meant to bring joy and inspiration. Last year it was Crip Camp, and this year the joy comes via Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his directorial debut, with Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could not Be Televised). The film is made up of a lot of concert footage that’s been sitting somewhere for over 50 years, and that alone makes its release a celebration.
Showing the concerts that made up the Harlem Cultural Festival, which happened Sundays at 3pm from June 29th to August 24th, 1969, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could not Be Televised) takes viewers through performances, and also shows some of those performers watching footage for the first time in 50 years and recalling those moments. It also places these performances in context of what was happening in the Black communities and in culture and politics of the country. This is a country which had lost both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, in which Black and Brown folks had suffered violence at the hands of the police, where Black and Brown men were disproportionately represented at the front lines in Vietnam, and members of the Black Panthers were being held and tried right down the street. As one attendee said, “we needed something to reach out and touch us”.
Interviews with Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and a number of Black and Brown journalists and activists speak to the times. In this film, we are seeing great historical performances, but also hearing why they are important, and why this kind of festival was so essential for those in attendance.
There’s an explosion of color onstage in the musicians’ costumes and in the audience, with a huge audience of beautiful Black and Brown people of all ages. Watching it, it’s clear the vibe was very different from the concert that happened about 100 miles away in Woodstock. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a gathering of community, that amounted to over 300,000 attendees, nearly all people of color, was politically galvanizing, and offered a freedom rarely felt. Here were some of the most talented, dynamic, inspirational artists in the country, all of color, sharing their talent. From funk to pop to jazz, Afro-Cuban and gospel, from Stevie Wonder, BB King, and the 5th Dimension to the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach and Nina Simone, these concerts are these artists at their best.
These historic concerts, like so many other events in the 20th century that happened in the communities of color, were all but erased after they happened. Another concertgoer said “these concerts took my life into color. Then it was forgotten”. This film is a wonderful way to bring them back into the consciousness of music fans and pull them back from being, at best, just a cultural footnote, and place them in the light, where the Harlem Cultural Festival deserves to be. It’s perfect that Sly and the Family Stone ends the doc with his band’s famous “Higher”, performing a far better version than that shown in Woodstock, which is what made him famous. Questlove and crew wanted to take this joyful cultural experience higher, and that they’ve done. It’s truly crazy that anyone could have forgotten such a magical experience. This doc is destined to be one of the best of the Sundance Film Fest.
5 out of 5 stars.