Summer of Soul
(Film Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Film review by Peter Jones)
Rating 12A, 117mins From July 16 in cinemas and from July 30 on Disney+
By now you have probably heard about this film, which debuted in UK cinemas at the weekend and will move to Star on Disney+ at the end of the month. However I would urge you, if you can, to experience it on the big screen – and hear it with cinema sound.
Billed as the Black Woodstock, Summer of Soul is actually far better than that description might suggest. In fact it’s a more well-constructed, more satisfying film than the baggy, rambling one Michael Wadleigh made about Woodstock – not least for placing the events in a powerful, though not overwhelming, social context.
Summer of Soul, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, documents a series of free concerts that formed part of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and were staged over six Sundays from June to August in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). And by no means were the acts limited to soul. The list of artists is mouthwatering, to say the least, with a strong jazz and gospel presence: Mahalia Jackson, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Staple Singers, Ben Branch, the Chambers Brothers, 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin (formerly of The Temptations), The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Max Roach, Sonny Sharrock and Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masekela and – unforgettably – Nina Simone. (The organisers apparently turned Jimi Hendrix down.)
Much has been made of the fact that despite the whole thing being professionally filmed, no broadcaster was interested in it at the time, so the footage went into storage for half a century. At this point, you may wish to return to the list of artists, rub your eyes and ask yourself, how could this be?
Between the performances but seamlessly woven into them are brief sequences about the black history of the sixties – the poverty, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of progressive political leaders, the rise of black consciousness. We learn that the Harlem Cultural Festival only came about at all thanks to the full-blooded support of New York’s white Mayor John Lindsay. There are emotional interviews, too, with those who were in the crowd, most of them just children at the time, as well as those artists who are still with us: notably Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Billy Davis Jr and Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension.
The technical quality – particularly the sound – is excellent, a miracle of restoration. Another striking feature is the breathtaking quality of the performances. The Woodstock artists come off looking sloppy and self-indulgent by contrast, with the obvious exception of Sly Stone’s outfit, who appeared at both events. The black artists featured here are simply more musically gifted and professional, more adept at singing and playing, and with plenty to say about how the races of the world should learn to live together. Sly and the Family Stone were the early adopters of a more inclusive culture that has only become mainstream in very recent years: keyboards and trumpet are played by women; drums and tenor saxophone by a pair of white guys. This snapshot of 1969 also marks a transition in black history between the older, formally attired, church-going black citizens of Harlem, and the younger, noisier, more outrageously colourful and politically engaged element.
But in general it’s all about peace and love there in Mount Morris Park. Until, that is, we come to Nina Simone. Coming on like a militant African queen, Simone is in no mood for compromise with whitey, reading the poem Are You Ready? by David Nelson of The Last Poets, asking the audience if they’re ready – ready to destroy property, even ready to kill. This was a foretaste of the violent suppression and defeat of black nationalism in the years that followed, and the reason why Black Lives Matter is a slogan that still needs to be uttered more than fifty years later.
The mood of the film, however, is upbeat and joyful, sometimes ecstatic, and it can be seen on the faces of those who thronged the park and all of those who appeared on stage. Thompson deserves our gratitude that these moments were not allowed to continue mouldering in a basement for another half-century.
Peter Jones is the author of This is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz (Equinox Publishing, 2020)