Let Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, jump into the documentary game in style. With “Summer of Soul”, the Roots co-singer, drummer and songwriter makes his directorial debut. As with the best films, Questlove’s narrative is shrouded in mystery, while leaving an emotional resonance that won’t be soon forgotten.
Subtitled (“… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”), “Summer of Soul” traces the history of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts held in Mount Morris Park on consecutive Sundays from June to August 1969 The Western world was mesmerized by Woodstock, some 300,000 attendees flocked to the Harlem Festival, bringing together such notable artists and performers as the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the entire concert series, unsuccessfully searching for a distributor to share the magical event with the world. And this is where the mystery begins. For more than 50 years, the images have been stored in a basement. Over the years, as music historians bathed Woodstock and Monterey Pop Festivals in platitudes, the Harlem Cultural Festival has been tossed in the dustbin of history. So far, that is.
Thanks to Questlove – which is explicitly committed to “correcting history” – the Harlem Cultural Festival story is finally earning its due. And just as important, the masterful performances of a host of popular music’s most influential artists are finally seeing the light of day.
After producer Robert Fyvolent learned of the film’s existence, he purchased the rights to Tulchin, paving the way for Questlove to bring the festival’s story to life. The result is simply breathtaking. In Questlove’s hands, the performances come to life as fresh and punchy as if they had been produced last year, let alone five decades ago.
For his part, Questlove couldn’t help but wonder, “What would have happened if this [festival] was he entitled to a seat at the table? What difference would it have made in my life? ”As it stands, the unseen footage represents many of our greatest artists working at the height of their powers.
Take the Edwin Hawkins Singers, chanting “Oh, Happy Day” with uncontrolled abandon. Or the Fifth Dimension, their harmonies rising ever higher on “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In”. Thanks to Summer of Soul, audiences can gawk at 19-year-old Stevie Wonder interrupting a drum solo for the ages. Or discover Gladys Knight and the Pips singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in pure technicolor. And then there’s Sly and the Family Stone, who perform their counterculture masterpiece “Everyday People” with the kind of enthusiasm that can only be achieved in front of a sea of enthralled spectators.
But in the end, as Questlove reminds us, the most important aspect on display during this legendary summer was, plain and simple, “black joy”. Summer of Soul is a marvel to see.
“Summer of Soul” is now streaming on Hulu.