‘Summer of Soul’ review: A hidden gem that resonates even today 

The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, known otherwise as the Black Woodstock, spread the message of peace and hope through music. Over 50 years later, it finally gets its due 

May 03, 2022 11:24 am | Updated 06:26 pm IST

A still from ‘Summer of Soul’

A still from ‘Summer of Soul’

Watching the recent release of Peter Jackson’s Get Back, an exhaustive documentary on The Beatles’ twilight days as a band, entices you with the delicious prospect of more such gems on the pop culture of that era waiting to be released to the public. Summer of Soul is another of those. Footage of a music festival was locked away in a basement for over 50 years, until it turned into a labour of love for another director. 

Everyone remembers the Woodstock music festival in New York (August 15-18, 1969). Who remembers the “Black Woodstock”, apart from those who were there? Did the rest of America and the world know such an event preceded Woodstock by a few weeks, 100 miles away in Harlem, Manhattan?   

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran between June and August 1969. Nearly 300,000 people in total thronged Mt. Morris Park, huddled together over every square inch of grass, some perched on trees to catch live performances of some of the best black musicians in the country. Entry was free, the air wafted with smells of “mama’s home-cooked chicken”, and famous civil-rights activists made speeches. For six weekends, Harlem, at the time in the news for a rampaging heroin wave, turned into a hotbed of musical expression and peace. 

Funding wasn’t sufficient to secure floodlights, so the organisers had to get the stage facing westwards, to face the sunlight. The Black Panthers Party stepped in to provide security. The festival had the backing of New York Mayor John Lindsay, a “liberal” Republican who was friendly with the black community. This was thanks to the suave and charismatic festival organiser Tony Lawrence, also the festival’s flamboyant emcee. 

Filling the park was easy; selling it to TV networks wasn’t. Efforts to market it as the “Black Woodstock” failed. Raw footage of the festival remained unreleased and sat in filmmaker Hal Tulchin’s house for decades. Summer of Soul 

Until now.

Summer of Soul
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson 
Cast: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, 5th Dimension 

Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, a musician himself, who confessed he wasn’t aware that the festival existed earlier, pored over hours of concert footage and snipped it down to under two hours of musical extravaganza, interwoven with reels of the political turmoil in America in the 60s. 

Summer of Soul (or when the revolution could not be televised), now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, bagged the Best Documentary Feature in the 2022 Oscars, and isn’t just about the music. The country was churning through the 60s with the civil rights movement; the high-profile assassinations of John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy; youngsters were being shipped off to a war that by then was seemingly un-winnable (read Vietnam); and South Africa was on the cusp of global isolation. The killing of Martin Luther King in ’68 was the tipping point. 

Concert attendees interviewed in the film say the festival had to happen to prevent New York City from completely boiling over. Lawrence proved the skeptics wrong by arranging a star-studded lineup including Stevie Wonder, blues legend BB King, soul queen Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Staple Singers, 5th Dimension, the mixed-race mixed-gender group Sly and the Family Stone, Motown legends like David Ruffin, Latin jazz musician Ray Barretto, and much more. 

Emotions ran high when Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled those final few moments before King was killed, with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples belting out a rousing tribute to the activist. What makes Summer of Soul a must-watch in today’s times is the context around which the festival was conceived. 50 years on, with the Black Lives Matter Movement, it feels like déjà vu.   

The members of the mixed-gender group 5th Dimension speak about why it was so crucial they performed in Harlem, to bust the myth that they were a black group with a “white sound”. Sounds familiar, with the perception that trailed Barack Obama that he wasn’t “black enough” when he ran for the presidency 40 years later.     

In the midst of the festival, America landed a rocket on the moon. Some Harlemites couldn’t be bothered. All that cash spent on putting a man up there could have been used to feed the poor in Harlem, says one attendee. That fight for recognition extended to the festival itself; it was always going to be overshadowed by Woodstock. 

Yet, for those who look back wistfully over that Summer of ’69, it was a summer that seemed to last forever. 

Summer of Soul is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar 

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