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Review: 'Summer of Soul'

Imagine that the many hours of raw footage of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival had been placed in someone’s basement and never seen.

It would seem unimaginable. And yet, that is essentially the story of another major music festival that occurred 100 miles away, during that same summer of ’69.

It was called the Harlem Cultural Festival. It featured a superstar lineup of talent and attracted a combined crowd of nearly 300,000 people. It was a joyous event, beautifully staged and recorded that took place over six consecutive weekends.

It was spectacular. It was historically significant, musically, culturally and politically, during a time when the nation was in a period of volatile transition.

It was the milestone year in which mankind stepped onto the surface of the moon. It was a year of turmoil in a country torn apart over the growing dissention about the Vietnam war and escalating social and racial discord that triggered riots in the streets.

The Harlem Cultural Festival, like the Woodstock Festival, was a break-out mega concert venue unlike anything anyone had seen or heard.

It was an ambitious undertaking meant to unify people through music and make the world a better place. Hal Tulchin decided to produce a film that would preserve it all for posterity.

It held up a mirror and reflected that moment in history. In that sense, it was a cinematic time capsule.

And while time capsules are meant to be eventually opened at some point in time, this one faced the possibility of being lost and forgotten forever.

After more than a half century, it was well on its way, fading into obscurity, never to be seen or shared.

Enter Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show house band, who became aware of the lost footage and made it his mission to rescue it.

The result is a movie that in many ways is on a par with Woodstock in terms of relevance and lasting importance.

People referred to the event as the Black Woodstock. What emerged was the eye-popping, award-winning film Summer of Soul (. . . or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).

It is, right off the top, an assemblage of the top R&B and Gospel performers of the day that reached out and crossed over into other current musical genres.

The list includes:

The Chambers Brothers (best known for their chart-topping hit “Time Has Come Today”) as well as B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Herbie Mann, the Staples, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, the 5thDimension, and Sly and the Family Stone.

The film opens with footage of a young Stevie Wonder singing “It’s Your Thing” followed by a rare glimpse of Stevie serving up a smooth, snappy solo sitting behind a set of drums.

It’s impressive.

Everything here is impressive.

From the performances to the capturing of the performances on what was then known as “Quad” tape, the 2-inch wide, reel to reel video tape that networks used to recorded nationally syndicated shows.

Incidentally, it is the same, top of the line, expensive tape format that the networks used to routinely “bulk erase” in order to reuse and save money.

When TV stars like Johnny Carson discovered that widespread practice, they made arrangements to buy and preserve their work for future syndication.

In this case, the Harlem Cultural Festival tapes were placed in a basement where they remained for 50 years, with the very knowledge of their very existence fading away over time.

What would have been lost—forever—would have been a part of the American experience and our collective soul.

While the movie showcases some truly timeless music, it also weaves together the story of the times in a broader historical context.

It draws connections to the events that lead to this chapter of history. JFK. RFK. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, Jr. The moments of greatness, loss and tragedy that defined us as a nation.

All the events that set the stage for the emotional outpouring that became the Harlem Cultural Festival that summer so long ago.

Woodstock captured the growing protest to Vietnam. The Harlem Cultural Festival captured America’s ongoing struggle with oppression and injustice.

When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, some of the festival fans said that they could care less, questioning how the money spent on the space program might have been better served providing food and shelter to the underprivileged all across America.

It’s a sentiment that has been swept under the carpet.

Following her performance, Nina Simone addresses the audience, and asks if they are ready for change. “Are you ready?” Are you ready to kill, if necessary?”

It’s the impassioned language of revolution. It’s the defiant language of people pushed to the brink and beyond.

Unfortunately, it’s the kind of language that may have tanked this film and any chance of success back in 1969 and the polarization that existed. The Black community was crying out. But few seemed to want to listen.

Like Woodstock, Summer of Soul is a cultural snapshot of one, very pivotal year. The trendy clothes. The popularization of the Afro hairstyle. The first use of the word “Black” instead of Negro in a New York Times article written by a female African-American reported.

It’s all there. It’s what makes Summer of Soul such a remarkable film.

It makes you hope that Questlove might put down those drumsticks again sometime and go digging for more buried treasure.


'Summer of Soul' opens in theatres and streams on Hulu beginning July 2.

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