Two summers ago I wrote on Woodstock. 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the famous (perhaps infamous) music festival, and a good time to assess its legacy as captured in a landmark concert documentary. After all, it’s iconic; if you mention the place, people think of half-naked hippies in a field and Jimi Hendrix absolutely shredding “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
But I wrote about Woodstock’s 50th anniversary before Summer of the soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) came out of. Looking back, after watching this absolutely spectacular concert documentary, I’m sad we weren’t talking about Harlem ’69 alongside Woodstock ’69.
Sad, but not particularly surprised, it was not on our collective radar.
Hope you don’t need a lot of conviction to watch Summer of the soul (and you have two options, on Hulu or, better, in a theater). Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove, directed the film, which is primarily a concert documentary made up of mind-blowing, never-before-seen footage.
In 1969, after a tumultuous year in America in general and New York in particular, the city announced a series of concerts that will take place over six weekends at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), nestled in the heart of the neighborhood. from Harlem to Manhattan, at the epicenter of black cultural life. About 300,000 people attended in total (Woodstock, 100 miles north, attracted 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 queue! Nina simone. BB King. Gladys Knight and the glitches. Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples and the Staples Sisters, one of which was called Mavis. The 5th dimension. Herbie Mann. Singers Edwin Hawkins. Mongo Santamaria. Mabley moms. Max Roach. Stevie Wonder. Sly and the Family Stone, for which the NYPD refused to provide security, so the Black Panthers did it instead. There was Motown and gospel, soul and funk. And that only scratches the surface.
The entire concert series was filmed by a crew (much like Woodstock), with director and producer Al Tulchin at the helm. But in Summer of the soul, Tulchin explains that he tried to sell the footage for release afterwards, branding it as “Black Woodstock” to explain what the event had been, and found no takers. “Nobody cared about Harlem,” he says.
It’s not as if the concert featured some obscure acts that aroused no interest outside of Harlem, or even outside of black communities. They drove American music and topped the charts. It didn’t matter to the decision makers. And so, the pictures have more or less sat in a box in someone’s basement for 50 years. Then, in recent years, producer Robert Fyvolent discovered it and bought the rights to Tulchin. Now we have Summer of the soul.
Every moment is a surprise. After a while, you’ll find yourself sitting open-mouthed, waiting to see what incredible cultural icon will take the stage next. Images are kinetic and vivid, shot from angles that highlight how the crowd reacts to each performance, drawing closer to faces dripping with sweat and emotion, and sometimes pulling off the stage. through the gaps between instruments, to reveal faces delighted with the spectacle.
I will never get over seeing Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the same mic, so close we can see their individual teeth. It’s a song Jackson had performed alongside Martin Luther King Jr. several times before; King had been assassinated a year before the concerts.
“The gospel was more than religious,” says Al Sharpton. “Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America. We didn’t know anything about therapists, but we did know Mahalia Jackson.
Thompson, realizing that the significance of the event to the historic moment black community could use contemporary reinforcement, enlists commentators – mostly people who were there over 50 years ago – to talk about what it does. meant seeing a crowd full of blacks. faces in celebration. Or that the concerts take place in a moment of revolution, of crystallization of black identity. “By the fashion in the crowd, you could see the change happening,” one commentator said.
A generational shift was occurring among black Americans, and it was important that the concerts take place as debates raged within Harlem itself about nonviolence and activism, about expanding consciousness to encompass a whole range of cultures that had been excluded by mainstream white America.
In one sequence, Thompson weaves a poignant exploration of the moon landing, which occurred in the middle of the festival, and what the people gathered at Mount Morris Park thought during this “giant leap for humanity.” Archival footage reveals that people are far 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 tells a documentary like the one from 2016 JO: Made in America, Summer of the soul Skillfully weaves the vibe of the era and the long history of black expression through the music in this unique moment, and it practically explodes offscreen.
That we’ve been talking about Woodstock and not the Harlem Cultural Festival all this time as if this was the moment a generation emerged isn’t all that surprising. “The so-called powers that are, or were, did not find him important enough to keep him in the story,” notes one participant in the film. It wasn’t as if the festival’s essential erasure of cultural memory was an anomaly; Black history is constantly forgotten. It doesn’t happen by accident. Powerful people make choices about what they think is worth keeping in cultural memory, and what is good to forget.
This is why a movie like Summer of the soul Questions. It’s not just a blast to watch – and it really is a blast. It’s another small step towards reclaiming America’s full history, expanding the context of our present not just for people who remember the past, but for those who never knew it in the first place. . We are fools if we don’t think about burying the import of era change from events like these are as much a part of American history as the events themselves – and movies like Summer of the soul to defend oneself bring the past to life with vividness.
At the start 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 he’s going to start playing out footage so Jackson can see them while he answers questions. But as soon as the screen light falls on his face, Jackson is frozen, unable to answer the questions, his eyes starting to wet. At the end of the film, he says that looking at the footage moved something in him that still somehow doubted the reality of his memory of the festival. Crying, he said, “I knew I wasn’t crazy. But now I know I’m not. And that’s just confirmation. “
Then he smiles. “And not just that,” Jackson said. “But how beautiful it was.”
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) plays in theaters and streaming on Hulu.