Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Director: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Features: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, BB King, 5th Dimension, Sly & the Family Stone
In the same summer of ‘69 that saw Woodstock, there was another, lesser known and lesser celebrated event that took place in NYC over six weekends in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Live performances from Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, BB King and Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone were recorded on video but extraordinarily the footage wasn’t picked up for distribution, save for the odd highlight, and the tapes languished in a basement until the rights changed hands some fifty years later. Seeing this footage now, lovingly assembled by musician and writer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in what is his directorial debut, it feels like a miracle.
Despite the stellar line-up, the festival organised by entrepreneur and lounge singer-style emcee Tony Lawrence, and supported by well-regarded liberal mayor John V. Lindsay, was mounted on a tight budget to the extent that the stage had to be built facing West as a lighting rig was unaffordable.
A nineteen-year-old Stevie Wonder kicks off the proceedings dressed in standard soul revue threads of sharp suit and frilly shirt, pacing the stage before, thrillingly, sitting down and hammering a drum kit in what sounds like a crash of liberation. Later when Stevie rocks out in an electrifying version of ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day’ it’s as if he’s transforming before our eyes into the socially conscious 70s Wonder we think of now. The comparatively ‘square’ 5th Dimension, a vision in orange suede fringed waistcoats, provide an unexpected early highlight with their performance of ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ inviting members of the audience to join them on stage for the latter part. Touchingly their performance is juxtaposed with a new interview with two of the group, the visibly moved Billy Davis and Marilyn McCool, as they watch the footage for the first time.
Midway, Thompson takes us to church with Mahalia Jackson and guest, an awe-struck Mavis Staples, giving a moving rendition of Martin Luther King’s favourite hymn ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’ mere months after his assassination. Then Sly Stone and his band beam down with their multicultural modernity-signalling funk driving the crowd into a frenzy.
It’s not all soulful righteousness though with jazz interludes from Max Roach, Latin music from Ray Barretto and a set from South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. There’s even comedy with the ventriloquist stylings of Willie Tyler and Lester, and a tantalisingly brief glimpse of trailblazing female stand-up Moms Mabley.
For the climax a regal Nina Simone distils anger and defiance with a consciousness-raising set featuring a blistering ‘Mr Backlash’, the debut performance of ‘Young Gifted and Black’ and a reading of incendiary poem ‘Are You Ready?’
Alongside the rousing and riotous musical sequences and reminisces from performers and viewers, Thompson features commentary from such figures as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who outline the social context, but never at the expense of the musical momentum. It’s not all social unrest and assassinations either. Next to moving descriptions of inspiration and forbearance, there is a wryly amusing segment chronicling the African-American community’s jaded reaction to the moon landing.
The colours are vivid and dashiki-bright and the sound mixing is fantastic. This is destined to be regarded as one of the great concert films as well as an outdoor screening favourite.
Summer of Soul is released 16th July and will be available on Disney Plus from 30th July. We would highly recommend catching this on the big screen though.
Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm