Two summers ago I wrote about Woodstock. 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the famous (perhaps infamous) music festival, and an auspicious time to assess its legacy, as captured in a landmark concert documentary. After all, it is iconic; If you mention the place, people think of half-naked hippies in a field and Jimi Hendrix absolutely trashing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But I was writing about Woodstock’s 50th anniversary before Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) came out. In retrospect, after seeing this absolutely spectacular concert documentary, I am saddened that we weren’t talking about Harlem ’69 alongside Woodstock ’69.
Sad, but not particularly surprised that it wasn’t on our collective radar.
The 5th Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Hopefully, you don’t need a lot of convincing to watch Summer of Soul (and you have two options, on Hulu or, better yet, in a movie theater). Ahmir Thompson, also known as Questlove, directed the film, which is primarily a concert documentary made up of jaw-dropping, never-before-seen footage.
In 1969, after a tumultuous year in the United States in general and in New York City specifically, the city announced a series of concerts that would take place over six weekends in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), located in the heart of Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood at the epicenter of black cultural life. About 300,000 people attended in total (Woodstock, 100 miles north, drew about 400,000). They called the event the Harlem Cultural Festival. The coffee brand Maxwell House was the sponsor. Jesse Jackson and Mayor John Lindsay introduced themselves.
The main attraction was the music. And what a lineup! Nina Simone. BB King. Gladys Knight and the Pips. Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples and the Staples Sisters, one of whom was named Mavis. The fifth dimension. Herbie Mann. Edwin Hawkins Singers. Mongo Santamaria. Mabley moms. Max Roach. Stevie wonder. Sly and the Family Stone, for whose performance the NYPD refused to provide security, so the Black Panthers did it instead. There was Motown and gospel, soul and funk. And that’s just scratching the surface.
The entire concert series was filmed by a crew (like Woodstock), with director and producer Al Tulchin at the helm. But on Summer of Soul, Tulchin explains that he tried to sell the footage for later broadcast, calling it “Black Woodstock” to explain what the event had been, and found no takers. “Nobody cared about Harlem,” he says.
It’s not like the concert featured dark acts that didn’t attract interest outside of Harlem, or even outside of black communities. They drove American music and topped the charts. That didn’t matter to the decision makers. And so the footage was pretty much in a can in someone’s basement for 50 years. Then in later years, producer Robert Fyvolent found out about it and bought the rights to Tulchin. Now, we have Summer of Soul.
Every moment is a surprise. After a while, you’ll find yourself sitting open-mouthed, waiting to see what incredible cultural icon will hit the stage next. The footage is kinetic and vivid, shot from angles that emphasize how the crowd is responding to each performance, approaching faces drenched in sweat and emotion, and sometimes filming from the stage. through spaces between instruments, to reveal excited faces with the show.
I will never recover from watching Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into the same microphone, so close that we can see their individual teeth. It is a song that Jackson had performed alongside Martin Luther King Jr. many times before; King had been assassinated a year before the concerts.
Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson in Summer of Soul. Searchlight images
“The gospel was more than religious,” explains Al Sharpton. “The gospel was therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America. We didn’t know anything about therapists, but we knew Mahalia Jackson. “
Thompson, realizing that the significance of the event to the black community of the historic moment might need contemporary reinforcement, brings in commentators, mostly people who were there more than 50 years ago, to talk about what it meant to see a packed crowd. of blacks. faces celebrating. Or that the concerts take place in a moment of revolution, of crystallization of the black identity. “From the fashion in the crowd, you could see that change was taking place,” says one commentator.
There was a generational shift taking place among African Americans, and it mattered that the concerts occurred while debates raged within Harlem about nonviolence and militancy, about expanding consciousness to encompass a wide range of cultures that had been excluded by the mainstream American whites.
In one sequence, Thompson weaves together a moving exploration of the moon landing, which occurred in the middle of the festival run, and what the people gathered at Mount Morris Park were thinking during that “great leap for humanity.” Archival footage reveals to people significantly less convinced that landing on the moon was worth spending money that could have been used to alleviate poverty and hunger here on earth. In a way that narrates a documentary like 2016’s OJ: Made in America, Summer of Soul cleverly weaves the mood of the time and the long history of black expression through music right now, and practically explodes out of the box. the screen.
That we have been talking about Woodstock and not the Harlem Cultural Festival all this time as if it were the moment when a generation emerged is not that surprising. “The alleged powers that are, or were, did not find it significant enough to keep it as part of the story,” notes a participant in the film. It wasn’t as if the festival’s essential erasure of cultural memory was an anomaly; Black history fills with memories all the time. It doesn’t happen by accident. Powerful people make decisions about what they think is worth keeping in cultural memory and what is okay to forget.
Gladys Knight and the Pips in Summer of Soul. Searchlight images
That’s why a movie like Summer of Soul is important. It’s not just a wonder to see, and it really is a wonder. It’s another small step in bringing the entire history of America back, expanding the context of our present not only for people who remember the past, but also for people who never knew it in the first place. We are fools if we don’t think to bury the age-changing importance of Events like these are as much a part of American history as the events themselves, and movies like Summer of Soul defend themselves. giving life to the past in a vibrant way.
At the beginning of the film, Musa Jackson, who attended the festival as a child, sits down to be interviewed about the experience. Off camera, Thompson tells him that he will start playing back footage so Jackson can see it while answering questions. But as soon as the light from the screen falls on his face, Jackson freezes, unable to answer questions, his eyes start to water. At the end of the film, he says that seeing the images moved something inside him that always doubted that his memory of the festival was real. Crying, he says: “I knew I was not crazy. But now I know that I am not. And this is just a confirmation «.
Then smile. “And not only that,” says Jackson. But how beautiful it was.
Summer of Soul (… O, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) se proyecta en los cines y se transmite en Hulu.