December 1, 2021 – This is one of those performing arts documentary movies, like “Festival Express” (2003) and “The T.A.M.I. Show” (2010) that saw decades of delay for one reason or another (mainly legal problems) before being released on video.
According to the film, “Summer of Soul” materials got no interest from television and film studios, despite appearances by B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, the Chambers Brothers, Hugh Masekela, Herbie Mann, Gladys Knight and the Pipps, and other top acts. Video tape of the festival, recorded in 1969, sat, untouched for 50 years, until this film was made from those materials, this year.
The music was recorded during six weeks of outdoor music concerts in Harlem's Mount Morris Park (now renamed Marcus Garvey Park) were all part of the Harlem Cultural Festival. In addition to the footage shot at the time, this movie includes interviews with some of the performers who were there, as well as people from the huge crowd of 50,000 or more who watched each of these concerts (combined attendance of all these concerts estimated at 300,000) and others commenting on the history of this era.
The concerts coincided with the first manned landing on the moon, and the much more famous Woodstock Festival 100 miles distant. Unlike those events, the Harlem Cultural Festival seems to have vanished into the mists of time, but this movie brings it back to life. The comments of the people who witnessed it and participated in it show how much it meant, not only the people of Harlem, but black people all over the country. It represented a cultural revolution among blacks. That alone, makes this a very important film.
It is nice to see performers like B.B. King and Sly and the Family Stone when they were young and in their prime. Snippets of some performances are seen and heard in the film, while others, like Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson's emotional, soulful rendition of “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” and Nina Simone belting out the “Backlash Blues,” get more extended play time. One of Motown's biggest hits, “My Girl,” is performed solo on stage by David Ruffin, the former lead singer of the Temptations, the group that first recorded the song.
Such musical gems abound in this movie, which includes a variety of music from show tunes, to ballads, gospel, jazz, blues and rock. Among the more interesting interviews is with Marilyn McCoo (who still looks beautiful 50 years later) of The Fifth Dimension. Members of the Fifth Dimension said that people thought their music was too white to be black and some blacks didn't think they were “black enough.” It therefore meant a lot to them to perform in front of such a massive crowd, of almost all black people, in Harlem.
Comedian Red Foxx has some quips in the movie, recorded at the festival, and noted minister and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson gives an emotional speech about the last minutes of the life of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated the previous year, while introducing King's favorite song, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Jackson, who now seems to be a member of the establishment, sounds like a fiery revolutionary in this movie.
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his fellow filmmakers has, in this movie, assembled a virtual time capsule of the Harlem Cultural Festival, and put it into a solid historical and cultural context. This is no mere concert film for the “shut up and sing” crowd. This is about Black America. It does not ignore the pain and sorrow of that experience.
This is a film that is important from a historical standpoint, and there are some amazing performances in it, as well as capturing the history of the time. It seems there are a lot of people who would like to erase black history from the schools, but this film restores some important black history that had been overlooked. This film rates a B+.
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