You all probably know about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, but most of you have probably never heard about the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was incidentally also held during the summer of 1969 just like Woodstock. Mainly based on around forty hours of archival footage shot during the concert, documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the US Documentary Competition when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, takes us into that forgotten summer of Harlem in 1969, and the result is quite vivid, illuminating, and enlightening to say the least.
Alternating between the archival footage clips and the interviews from a number of various figures associated with the Harlem Cultural Festival, the documentary initially gives us the overview on the social/historical background of the festival. During the 1960s, many of African Americans became quite more active with their ongoing civil rights movement, and there consequently came a lot more changes in their social status in the American society despite numerous backlashes including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Meanwhile, soul and several other music genres mainly represented by African American musicians became much more prominent than before, and the Harlem Cultural Festival was one of their notable culmination points. The festival was promoted by an African American guy named Tony Lawrence, and this dude surely knew how to hold a big festival in the middle of Harlem. Via many connections of his with a bunch of different figures ranging from the Mayor of New York City to the agents of numerous African American musicians, he could have his seemingly unlikely concert held in Mount Morris Park of Harlem (It is now Marcus Garvey Park, by the way), and the festival, which was held from late June to late August of 1969, attracted thousands of audiences thanks to those many famous African American musicians who were willing to perform there.
Not so surprisingly, what they gave the audiences during that period was indeed something to behold. After all, the festival had Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Blinky Williams, Sly and the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, and Nina Simone, and these and other musicians surely gave lots of exciting moments for the audiences to remember. As the festival freely flowed from one genre to another, everyone in the festival gladly went along with that, and that was particularly exemplified by the cheerful performance of The 5th Dimension, who showed the audiences that they were indeed African American musicians despite being criticized for sounding, uh, too ‘white’.
In case of Mahalia Jackson, she fully demonstrated exceptional singing ability in front of her audiences, and then there was an extraordinary moment when she later was about to sing the favorite hymn of Dr. King on the stage. Quite overwhelmed by her mournful feelings toward Dr. King’s recent tragic death, she let her fellow singer Mavis Staples sing the hymn instead of her, and Staples tells us how special that moment was for her besides being one of the highlights in her musician career.
And that was just one of many high points during the festival, and the documentary keeps delighting and exciting us. There is Stevie Wonder’s enthusiastically spellbinding performance, and then there comes the Sly and the Family Stone, and then there is also Gladys Knight & the Pips, who gave the audiences quite an exhilarating time before interacting a bit with them. Around the end of the documentary, we are served with the showstopper moment from Nina Simone, and this great African American singer surely did not disappoint her excited audiences as giving another stellar concert performance of hers. Considering how steadily the festival kept entertaining its many audiences, it is no surprise that many of them did not show much interest when the news on the successful Moon landing of Apollo 11 came in the middle of the festival.
However, what happened next after the festival was not so pleasant. Hal Tulchin, a television producer who supervised the recording of the festival, did try his best during and after the festival, but, due to the overwhelming popularity of the Woodstock, the festival failed to draw much intention, and his vast amount of footage had been left untouched for next 35 years until it is discovered by Joe Lauro, a film archivist of Historic Films Archive.
It subsequently took more than 15 years before this found footage was finally allowed to be used for the documentary, but what is presented in the documentary is fairly good in terms of visual and sound quality, and director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his editor Joshua L. Pearson did a commendable job of giving us an ample and exuberant 2-hour musical experience. I enjoy how he lets those musical moments speak for themselves, and I also appreciate how he provides some extra information and insight via his interviewees for more understanding for us.
In conclusion, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is an excellent documentary which deserves to be compared with “Woodstock” (1970), and it surely entertained and enlightened me enough during my viewing. To be frank with you, I would not mind watching more footage from the festival, and I will certainly be interested if there comes the extended version of this exceptional documentary. In short, this is one of the best documentaries of this year, and I urge you to check it out as soon as possible.