Directed By Questlove
Starring – Roy Ayers, Ethel Beatty, Barbara Bland-Acosta
The Plot – Part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten-until now. The film shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present.
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material.
– Common voice. One unique aspect about the film that speaks volumes to the magnitude of the movement going on in Harlem in 1969, is that of the many depictions and stories from those within the big event that shaped the overall bigger picture that everyone was fighting for. It provides a vast versatility in depth for the picture that isn’t just about one thing but an abundance, summarizing inequality in everything from police brutality, to minimalized funding, to lack of commercialization within black artists. Everything is included under one world-turning event, like ingredients to an overwhelming simmer in the community about to give way to something revolutionary. It’s easy to see how something like this was intentionally shelved for fifty years, but with a world that is unfortunately still mirroring a lot of the same problems plaguing the black population from that time, but in an entirely unique way contemporarily, it’s a rewarding and inspiring experience that effectively channels the importance of music serving as the voice for the voiceless.
– Visionary debut. Questlove has more than proven his worth as an iconic drummer for The Roots, but in stepping behind the director’s chair for the first time in a feature length film commands a completely transformative experience as a result of an abundance of community footage that he weaves into the fabric of the narrative. Aside from the in-concert footage, which produced in the neighborhood of fifty hours of artist performances, there’s an equally balancing insight into the stock footage of news briefings and documentary style photography that vividly paints the cultural minority turned majority for Harlem, New York, and one that brings with it an essence of distrust that serves as a result of many testimonials littered casually throughout. Questlove takes value in each conveying the magnitude of this story, all the while cementing this inspiring narrative with an air of poignancy underlining just beneath the surface, for how all of it was forgotten so quickly in the blink of an eye.
– Musical selections. With a bill that includes mainstream superstars like Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, to name a few, it’s no wonder why “Summer of Soul” produces one of the more complete and satisfying soundtracks of the entire 2021 movie year, and one that brings with it deeper meaning in the various narratives we sift through as an audience. What I love here is that each track featured is carefully picked and produced within the perfect context of what’s being discussed, all in order to convey a proper channeling of the many adversities persisting in and around the community. The performances themselves are given ample time to experience and colorfully interpret, all the while illustrating in the distance some pivotal footnotes from the artists themselves, who bared the heavy responsibility of easing the tensions elevated from the bulk of their paying audiences. Music is obviously subjective, but for my money the music in the Harlem Cultural Festival far exceeds that of Woodstock, and provided an indulging trip down memory lane to the songs I grew up with, as the son of a Motown enthusiast.
– Featured guests. From featured stage artists like Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and The 5th Dimension, to on-the-ground accounts from various attendees of the six week festival, the production offers a thorough recollection of events from every angle, all the while outlining a greater social commentary that goes far beyond the music. Most of the time spent with these guests are reactionary shots for the stitched together footage that make up the experience within the presentation, but occasionally we’re granted insight into the production of the tracks themselves, which were often times a reflection of the cultural adversities that each of them faced in a world demanding so much change. They’re all assembled wonderfully in a way that corresponds seamlessly with the narrative, and unlike a majority of documentaries with speaking testimonials, actually feel like they add something to the ensuing spectrum.
– Polished production. Considering these are tapes from 1969, at a time when technological advances were nowhere near in sight for audio and video enhancements, the remastering affords audiences a crisp, clear rendering that serves as the only compromise to an entirely transformative experience. The absence of buzzing, or tracking restoration is completely absent from the finished product, at least from my experience, and the vibrancy in everything from the wardrobe choreography of the various talents, to the three dimensional stage design, gives way to a splash of color that consistently intoxicates us with an alluring nature that I legitimately wasn’t expecting. This all permeates beautifully without removing an ounce of authenticity from the timely essence that experience consistently channels, giving us the best use of today’s technology with the best music of yesterday.
– Eye-opening. The film has no shortage of controversial topics and jaw-dropping revelations from an event that barely anyone outside of attendees knew about, but the most rewarding one for me personally was the social commentary imbedded with the NASA space program. With 1969 serving as the moon landing for Apollo 11, black citizens were often asked their take on such a monumental event, and the answers given seem so obvious in their varied deliveries, but so accurate in afterthought. The careless response from them is understandable to say the least, especially considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding that goes into NASA, made all the more disturbing with those dying of starvation on their very own streets of Harlem, who could definitely use that money over something so trivial. It’s one of a dozen or so of deeply moving deconstructions that outline the film with circumstantial depth far beyond that of just a musical documentary, and speaks volumes to the wealth of knowledge afforded to Questlove, who shares his gifts generously to audience’s interpretation.
– Further explanation. While every vocal point included on the documentary is fleshed out with a detailed degree of understanding and explanation, it’s the production of the event itself that I wish the film would’ve taken more time explaining its disappearance. The obvious answer is that the culturally biased majority of those in charge at the time wanted no part in marketing an entirely black event, to raise awareness. But for my money, I feel there’s a deeper story unaddressed here, and one that would pay off terrifically in balance with these other various topics that outline the betrayal, anger, and overwhelming despair of the black community for the time. This is especially bothersome to me when you consider that a major business name for the time, Maxwell Coffee, single-handedly sponsored the event, then allowed it to disappear as easily as its producers did, making for an unexplored area of fascination to me personally that I feel would’ve contributed to the bigger picture.
– Dry spots. Much of the unavoidable repetition that comes from the film’s consistent structure brings forth a series of plodding moments during the film’s second half execution that momentarily dwindled my interest. This was most obvious during sequences of song, which I adored on a musical level alone, but felt took too much away from the sharpness of the developing narrative, which so frequently is put on pause. “Summer of Soul” is just under two hours, and it starts to bear the weight of that run time through the shuffling of topics that it rarely has enough time to fully address without shifting to the next one almost simultaneously. If the song inclusions were thinner samples, more time could be donated to the conscience permeating itself within these figures of the community, but as it stands there were sporadic moments when my fascination dwindled with technical matters needing better editing.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+