MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
The story behind Summer of Soul is nearly as good as the film itself. In the summer of 1969, music producer Hal Tulchin and promoter Tony Lawrence organized the Harlem Cultural Festival, a month-long musical event that featured a most diverse and dazzling array of African American musical artists of the time, including Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, The Temptations, and B.B. King. The entire event was recorded on video tape, a technology still in its infancy, in attempt to bring the program to television. But that production never materialized, and the magnetic strip sat undisturbed in a basement for fifty years. Then it was miraculously recovered by Amir “Questlove” Thompson, who gave it the mainstream documentary it deserved.
The result is a film of significant historic importance and perhaps the purest act of joy currently showing in theaters.
The plot of the festival begins with vision of Tony Lawrence. A singer who was nicknamed “The Continental Dreamboat”, Lawrence wanted to create a music festival in the heart of Harlem with two goals: to celebrate the African American experience through song and bring Afro-centric styles of music to a wider audience. He brought together styles from all walks of life including traditional gospel, pop, rock, Motown, Latin inspired, and everything in between.
This is the debut of director Questlove, leader of The Roots, The Tonight Show’s house band. He proceeds slowly and carefully, allowing the music to continue uninterrupted for long stretches. At a recent press junket, he compared editing the film to his early career as a DJ, taking small clips and putting them together to create a greater narrative. Spliced into acts are reactions from the musicians themselves, now decades older, who are seeing five-decade-old footage for the first time.
The first section on the film focuses heavily on gospel music, and it is here that Soul shines brightest. Gospel music has its roots in slavery, when African captives blended melodies from their mother country with hymns from their oppressors to create a new sound. This style found hope in Christianity, and in hearing this music I was reminded of the faith of the Israelites in exile. These melodies used Bible stories of Noah, Moses (a favorite), and Jesus to identify their experience with those of God’s heroes. It’s no surprise the many great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement came from forms of Christian ministry.
As the film progresses, it becomes more political. Mahalia Jackson and robed choirs give way to Sly Stone and Nina Simone. The tensions that would soon bubble into riots and violence are apparent. At first, Mayor John Lindsay enthusiastically supported the festival and made an appearance on the opening day. The NYPD provided security, but the Black Panthers took over that job later in the month. These acts featured a different aesthetic, sporting native African clothing and hairstyles that were not yet common in the community. There is little in the way of explicit political commentary, but the turning tide of who would drive and narrate the black experience in American is front and center.
Historically, the Harlem Cultural Festival has been compared with Woodstock, which occurred at the same time and also featured a “cultural awakening” of sorts. Yet the similarities are only peripheral; to call this the “Black Woodstock” would be simplistic at best and insulting at worst. While the musical acts are center stage, there are interviews with attendees and sweeping shots of the audience. No one is smoking, no one is drinking, no one is naked. There are children dancing and grandparents clapping everywhere. Most are dressed in their Sunday best. The festival began with a prayer, and no one objected.
Even if one disagrees with the politics of some of acts, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a deliberate and intelligent feat of social expression, not just a chance to “tune out” from the world.
The title, though admittedly ungainly, presents a choice, both to the individual and the black community at large. Everyone deserves liberation from oppression and a chance at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The first option is soul. Faith and spiritual longing is heard in the voices of these talented artists who demonstrated their dignity through artistic excellence. This dignity calls for sacrificial redemption in the pursuit of justice. The second option is revolution, to force change through violence and opposite oppression. This choice, now being fought in schools and halls of government, has been rehearsed again and again, and the results are always the same.
Evil destroys, and love conquers. That is and will be the final note.
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