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‘Summer of Soul’ Review: Music Always Prevails

Questlove magnifies the screen with timely insight in 'Summer of Soul', examining an unexplored sphere of countercultural music.

Before watching Questlove’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), chances are you’ve never even heard of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Two years after the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock happened, hailed as one of the most influential music festivals that ever happened, at the height of the Vietnam War and countercultural tensions in an era filled with civil unrest. However, it wasn’t Woodstock, nor a man walking on the moon for the first time, that contributed to popular music’s upheaval, but a gathering of some of the greatest African American artists that ever walked this earth. However, the festival was immediately forgotten after the footage wasn’t sold and sat in a basement for over 50 years…until today. Summer of Soul not only showcases the importance of the Harlem Cultural Festival but acts as a precursor to the next decade, where music became unafraid at talking about the social issues of its times after one album paved the way for countercultural movements in pop music: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released in May of 1971.

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Summer of Soul‘s presentation is highly reminiscent of Apple TV+’s terrific miniseries, 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, where never-before-seen archival footage dictates in which direction the film will go, whilst complementing the commentaries of its various “talking heads.” Heck, this is a prologue to 1971, as I’ve previously mentioned before, because many artists featured in this documentary–such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone are heavily featured in Questlove’s film. Wonder’s performance in this festival paved the way for his activism in the 70s, and Sly and the Family Stone became more experimental after their appearance in the festival scene. It may have been completely forgotten for the ones that weren’t there, as it received little media coverage since it took place on one of the days in which the Moon Landing took place (an excerpt from CBS Evening News shows a journalist interviewing festival attendees on the Moon Landing, to which they all reply to him that they don’t care about that, and reminding the journalist of the festival’s importance), but to the ones that do, it brings back incredible memories.

Questlove gives an impassioned look at the festival by finding people that attended the festival, such as Dorinda Drake, Darryl Lewis, and Musa Jackson, to showcase what it meant to them. Jackson, in particular, breaks down in tears when he sees footage of Sly and the Family Stone performing I Want to Take You Higher, as the memories from attending the festival come swooping straight back. He says: “You put memories away, and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real.” He essentially resumes the documentary’s entire goal in that sentence: immortalizing an event that nobody knows happened, except the ones that were there and have a clear picture of what went down. You can be blown away by seeing Stevie Wonder bring the house down as he plays the drums, or Hugh Masekela doing a performance swept under the radar by the one he gave at Monterey Pop but is just as powerful (if not, even more), but you’ll never have the same impact as the ones who lived through the festival and where there when it happened. As the footage was not shown for over 50 years, the festival’s importance was only known for a select few.

But now that Questlove has “opened the vault” (if you will) and beautifully remasters 50-year old film in pristine condition, audience members now have a chance to catch a glimpse of what happened but will never reach the same level as the ones who participated in the event. That’s why testimonials from attendees are crucial, which complement the performances we see to understand the vital importance of the festival.

Other figures, which include Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, giving sociopolitical perspectives of the festival while describing the racial tensions of the time, are timely and sharp. The festival occurred three years after the assassination of Malcolm X and a year after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s deaths. Civil tensions were at their highest in 1969, particularly with Richard Nixon taking office as President of the United States in January of that year, which prolonged the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War for political gain, and got the public to associate Blacks with heroin and treat them as an inferior citizen of the country. The Harlem Festival, for Sharpton and Jackson, not only served to raise awareness for what was “going on” in society, with a President that desperately wanted to punish African Americans through his “war on drugs,” but also gave its participants an escape to speak truth to power and forget about everything else that was happening at the time and come together as one.

If there’s one thing to learn about this documentary is that music will always prevail. Music has always been a source of creativity, escape, or even activism in whatever situation you’re in. While the concert did raise awareness on the social issues of the Black and Puerto Rican communities in Harlem, it, unfortunately, had minimal impact on anything that was happening around that time. However, it paved the way for a musical revolution with artists becoming bolder in their messaging and creating politically charged albums to truly address “What’s Going On”. There was pre-Woodstock, and post-Woodstock, but there’s also pre-Harlem, and post-Harlem. Don’t underestimate the festival’s impact. The film is a reminder of why Harlem must be remembered and should be sought out before exploring 1971.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now playing in theatres and streaming on Hulu (U.S. Only). For international viewers, the film is available to stream on Disney+ at no additional charge.

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