The Revolution Should Have Been Televised: Summer of Soul Shows America’s Greatest Forgotten Music Festival
Film: Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Category: Feature – U.S. Documentary
Awards: U.S. Grand Jury Prize – Documentary, Audience Award – U.S. Documentary
Music festivals are a staple of American culture, from Coachella in California to Lollapalooza in Chicago to Governors Ball in New York and more, some of our biggest cultural moments around the country happen at music festivals every year. One of the biggest music festival moments happened in the summer of 1969, and you probably never heard a thing about it. I’m not talking about Woodstock, less than 100 miles away, the Harlem Cultural Festival was going on over 6 weekends for a total of nearly 300,000 people for the full festival.
Harlem Cultural Festival featured the biggest names in music of all time: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips, The 5th Dimension, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, The Temptations, and Sly and the Family Stone. These are real historical staples of not just Black music, but of all music. The festival was nicknamed Black Woodstock in hopes of getting the attention of media coverage. So why didn’t we hear a thing about it? Hardly any news coverage, no magazines, no 50-year anniversary celebration, not a peep. Because it was Black Woodstock, not Woodstock. This incredible festival was unfortunately overshadowed and forgotten with time. Hal Tulchin, a photographer who documented the festival, said not one outlet or publication would buy the photos, “Nobody was interested in the Black show. Nobody. Nobody cared about Harlem,” Tulchin said of his experience.
While this documentary could have fully been a concert film given the sheer amount of beautiful full sound, full-color footage the producers of the project were able to find, using the footage to tell a poignant story about the circumstances of the time and the intersection of the black experience during the Civil Rights Movement and music history. The documentary beautifully interweaves the highs of seeing incredible artists like B.B. King shredding on guitar and Nina Simone pounding away on piano keys with the lows of losses and struggles of the Black community. By the time this festival happened, the Black community had lost leaders and allies like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy, and they were struggling in the continued work of the Civil Rights Movement to fight poverty and drug addiction within their neighborhoods. Black people in 1969 were desperately asking and working for help for their communities while America was spending money putting a man on the moon, much like the festival, they were forgotten. This festival was an opportunity for Black people in Harlem to come together and experience moments of solidarity and of Black joy, a thing not often afforded in years prior.
Another great piece that really brings this film together is taking full advantage of the cultural melting pot that Harlem was and still is. The Harlem Cultural Festival celebrated Black and
Hispanic/Latino culture on and off stage. The film shows the musical intersections of Puerto Rican and Dominican and Jamaican and Black music and how those musical influences and beats bring Harlem together as a whole. The film even features Lin Manuel Miranda speaking to the influence of Puerto Rican culture and music that mixed into the culture of Harlem. Harlem’s culture was at the center of this film, not just the music, but the people. The festival featured icons like the Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking to 50,000 people about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hugh Masekela combining music from South Africa with Black American music, and percussionist Ray Barretto bringing Latin beats to the performances. The cultural festival was a rich reflection of the music and the people and the melting pot of Harlem.
The last brilliant component of this documentary was the interviews. Similar to ESPN’s The Last Stand where interviewees were shown clips from the Chicago Bulls games and Michael Jordan interviews to react to as they were interviewed, Summer of Soul interviewees were shown performances from the festival and news footage from the time, and their reactions were filmed in real-time. These live reactions are the heart of the film, seeing artists relive their experience at the festival and festival-goers have their memories revived brings both joy and sadness to the viewer. The artists’ recollections of the energy and excitement and historic moments (including Mavis Staples talking about performing with The Queen of Gospel, Mahlia Jackson) at the festival are so much fun to see. But, it’s also heartbreaking to see people, like Musa Jackson, who loved this festival talk about how he thought he had imagined the experience because it had disappeared as quickly as it came.
Summer of Soul is a documentary showing the importance of preservation. Whether it be preserving moments, like the Harlem Cultural Festival, or preserving the experiences of people of the time, like the Civil Rights Movement experiences of Black people that run parallel to the movements for racial justice and equality we’ve seen over the last year, making sure these moments are saved for future generations to see matters. If we lose pieces of history like this festival, how can we learn from the past to help us move forward in the present? Bringing the Harlem Cultural Festival to light is well worth the effort, for the performances and for the cultural context and experiences.
Review Score: 5/5
Where Can You Watch: Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” broke the record for the highest sale price of a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was purchased for $12 million by Searchlight and Hulu. While no public release date has been announced, keep an eye out for your chance to watch this documentary on Hulu.
Bonus content: Check out the Q&A with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, producers of the film, and members of The 5th Dimension who performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival on the Sundance Film Festival Youtube channel. Hearing Questlove, as a first-time filmmaker, talk about applying his experience as a DJ to his filmmaking process is a real delight. Watch here