Photo By: Noah Nickel via Disney+
Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, made his directorial debut by reviving the tape of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, making it more than a music documentary. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) tells the story of Harlem and the turmoil that took place during this time. It breaks down history with an intimate delicacy that serves well the topics at hand.
The documentary tells of all the struggles the Black community faced and the build-up that led to this festival becoming a release to their troubles, a place where they could come together. Having this background information makes the musical experience that much more impactful.
Most recently, Summer of Soul took home the Oscar for best documentary feature at the 94th Academy Awards, and the Grammy for the best music film, deservedly so. The editing and production are fantastic, it makes you feel as if you were at the festival yourself, and it does a great job at depicting how special this festival was. The documentary features various attendees and artists of the festival while they describe their memories and feelings during it.
Harlem, one of New York City’s historically rich neighborhoods, was the perfect place to hold this festival, as it is internationally known as the centre of Black heritage and culture. At the time, Harlem was going through a rough period; there was a drug epidemic in the streets, and the recent loss of Martin Luther King Jr. hit the community hard.
It’s almost unbelievable that a festival of this magnitude is seldom talked about. Its revival brings to question how many more historical musical performances have been lost or are sitting away somewhere, waiting to be reintroduced to the world.
The festival was overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place that same summer. The disparity in coverage of the two events is not reflective of their size however, as while Woodstock hosted over 400,000 attendees, the Harlem Festival was not far behind with over 300,000.
Artists such as Stevie Wonder, The Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, and Nina Simone took the stage at the Harlem Festival which was free of charge to its vast number of attendees. The festival ran for six Sundays, from June 29 until Aug. 24, 1969. There was a lot of hard work involved to make this festival happen. The budget was small, the stage had to face the sun because they weren’t able to get lights for the festival to be filmed.
The festival featured artists from a mix of genres, from jazz to blues to gospel. It is undeniable that the artists all put their soul into the music. It’s moments like these that make you appreciate the art and the talent that these legendary artists brought to the stage. It’s called Summer of Soul for a reason.
Overall, Questlove’s love for music is apparent and shines through on-screen. Who better to be in charge of this project than someone so deeply involved in the music industry? While I recommend having the full experience and watching the documentary, there is nothing like watching the full stage performance as well. You can also listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify or YouTube.