Saturday, July 31, 2021

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Sly Stone taking the audience "Higher!" 
This powerful award-winning documentary takes a comprehensive look at the Harlem Cultural Festival. The free concert series was held in the summer of 1969—from June 20 through August 24—at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park), which is on the border of Harlem and East Harlem. It was held over six consecutive weekends, and more than 300,000 people attended. The festival was a rousing celebration of black music and culture. It was designed to be a positive and uplifting event that would raise people’s spirits and reinforce their sense of community and bring them together.

Ahmir “Questlove ”Thompson makes an auspicious directorial debut with Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The acclaimed musician directs this absorbing documentary with the sure hand of a seasoned filmmaker. 

The long list of artists who performed at the festival reads like a veritable who’s who of influential black music legends. Some of them included Steve Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin and the Staples Singers. 

In addition to concert and archival footage, the documentary contains commentary from several people who attended the festival as well as some of the performers. It’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts from attendees as they relive their experiences while watching the concert footage. Since the festival’s footage had been locked away in a basement for 50 years, it was the first time they'd seen the performances since they attended the festival back in ‘69. The festival was a life-changing experience for many of the attendees, and this great documentary provided them a platform to express how much it meant to them and how it has impacted their lives. “That concert was like a rose comin’ through cement,” said poet and playwright Roger Parris, who was in attendance at the festival.

One of the documentary's most touching moments comes when the 5th Dimension founding member Marilyn McCoo tears up while watching their festival performance. At the time, the group was often accused of “not sounding black enough.” However, McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. (also a founding member of the 5th Dimension) explained that they loved all kinds of music and that the 5th Dimension’s sound encompassed several different styles, including pop, R&B, soul and jazz influences; and they asked, “How do you color a sound?” It was clear that those “too-white-sounding” accusations stung the couple. So it meant the world to them to have the opportunity to perform at the festival and be received so enthusiastically. A tearful McCoo said, “We were so happy to be there.”

Another emotional moment is when Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples take the audience to church with a soul-stirring rendition of the gospel song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It was incredible to watch these two vocal powerhouses bounce off one another with revival-meeting fervor. In her commentary, Staples warmly reminisced about that moment and expressed how much of an honor it was to share the microphone with her “idol” and “hero” Mahalia Jackson. The performance was dedicated to the memory of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated a little over a year earlier. It was the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader’s favorite song. He’d often invite Jackson to perform  it at his rallies and speeches. 

Groundbreaking band Sly & the Family Stone dazzled the audience with its electrifying gumbo of funk, rock, gospel, soul and psychedelia. The band kicked off its set with a ferocious performance of “Sing a Simple Song.” The exhilarating set also included their chart-topping smash “Everyday People.” And for the finale, they delivered a roof-raising performance of “I Want To Take You Higher” where Sly Stone engaged in some spirited call-and-response with audience members exhorting them to yell “Higher!” as loud as they could. The band’s original drummer and founding member Greg Errico provided commentary. He said: “Sly wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. And music made you want to challenge social aspects that needed to be challenged. And that’s what we did.”

Nina Simone brought attitude, elegance and soul to the stage during her set, which included a luminous performance of her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This was her debut of the inspirational black pride anthem; she would record it two months later at a concert at Philharmonic Hall for her live album Black Gold (1970). The Harlem Cultural Festival was the perfect venue to debut the song as there were many young black people in the audience who needed to hear it and be inspired by it. She also performed “Backlash Blues,” a scathing protest poem by Langston Hughes that Simone set to music. This festival performance showed what a formidable artist Simone was and why she’s such a revered cultural icon. 

A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder displayed his incredible talent and versatility during his set. He first wowed the audience with a wicked drum solo during his performance of the Isley Brothers’ smash “It’s Your Thing,” and then he scorched the stage with a sizzling clavinet solo—played through a wah-wah pedal—on an extra-funkified version of his hit "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day.” Little did anyone know that Stevie hadn’t even scratched the surface of his prodigious musical gifts at that point in his career. He would go on to completely alter the landscape of popular music in the next decade through a string of brilliant albums.

A plethora of music styles were represented at the Harlem Cultural Festival, including blues, soul, jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, Latin, African, Caribbean and more. And the festival attracted great artists who hailed from all parts of the globe, including legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who famously melded American jazz with African folk. The documentary also touched on how Latin and black music intersected in Harlem. Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans and Dominican Americans who lived in East Harlem influenced the music of their African-American neighbors and vice versa. This birthed fusion styles such as Afro-Cuban jazz. Pioneering Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria performed his popular Afro-Cuban jazz rendition of Herbie Hancock’s jazz standard “Watermelon Man” at the festival. Santamaria’s version of the song is a great example of how fusing Latin elements with African American-influenced jazz can often reap amazing results.

In addition to showcasing the amazing musical performances, Summer of Soul examines the festival’s cultural significance and the historical context of when it took place. During that period, the black community was experiencing a dramatic ideological shift. Attitudes and worldviews were rapidly changing among black Americans. As one commentator put it: “1969 was a change of era in the black community,” and another said, “We were creating a new world.” A number of young black activists at the time were adopting a more aggressive stance in fighting racial injustice; the feeling among this group was that the peaceful nonviolent approach advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had run its course and a more confrontational one was necessary to effect major change in the system. In Rev. Al Sharpton’s commentary, he pointed out that by 1969 there was a clear divide in the black community between those advocating violence and those who believed that nonviolence was still the most effective means of battling systemic racism.

The Black Power Movement was in full swing at the time. The movement pushed for black autonomy and self-determination and the building of social, economic and political power within the black community. And revolutionary group the Black Panther Party was really starting to gain traction and had chapters in major cities across the U.S. Also, many black Americans were embracing their African roots; this was reflected in their fashion, art, hairstyles and music. Wearing African attire was not just a fashion statement but a political one as well. It served as a subtle act of rebellion against the norms of and traditions of the dominant white culture, as well as an expression of pride in one’s African ancestry. Many audience members at the festival proudly wore their African-influenced clothing and hairstyles. Sharpton succinctly summed up this change of mindset in the black community: “‘69 was the pivotal year where the Negro died and Black was born.”

Summer of Soul thoroughly explores all of these developments to give viewers a better idea of what was going on in the black community at the time of the festival. This adds an extra emotional punch to the film and underscores the festival’s great historical importance.

The entire festival was filmed by veteran TV producer Hal Tulchin. He later tried to sell the footage as a television special, but no one was interested. The festival was overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place that same summer just 100 miles away in Bethel, New York. Woodstock got all the mainstream media attention, while the Harlem Cultural Festival was completely ignored. Tulchin even began calling it the “Black Woodstock” in hopes that it would raise some interest, but to no avail. 

Fortunately, thanks to Questlove and the many others involved in the making of Summer of Soul  (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the festival is finally getting the recognition and shine it deserves. Now people of all ages and races will know how significant it was and can experience it through this fantastic documentary. 

Summer of Soul has been showered with praise by film critics and has won several prestigious awards, including both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  And it currently has a near-perfect 99% fresh score rating at American review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. 

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