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Summer of Soul is in UK cinemas from 16 July and streaming on Disney+ from 30 July.

The year is 1969. At Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York City, Nina Simone, the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, stands on a psychedelic stage, looking regal in a yellow dress and a towering top knot. She’s just finished a rousing performance of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and she tells the audience – a vibrant sea of mostly Black women, men and children – that she has something to read to them. It’s a poem by David Nelson of the Last Poets, called Are You Ready, Black People?

“Are you ready to smash white things?” Simone reads from a piece of paper. “Are you ready to build black things?” The crowd responds with cheers. It’s a magical moment: somewhere between music and protest, between celebration and a call-to-action. 

The scene captures the spirit of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, the subject of the archival documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Spearheaded by the Caribbean singer and concert producer Tony Lawrence with support from New York City’s then-mayor John Lindsay, the festival hosted a string of heavyweight talents – Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, and more – over six consecutive weekends of free concerts that drew nearly 300,000 people. 

Sensing that something memorable was about to go down, the TV director Hal Tulchin decided to shoot the whole event on spec and videotaped nearly 40 hours of performances in the gorgeous summer sun. Tulchin was certain that networks would be interested in what he called ‘Black Woodstock’, riffing on the other music festival happening just 100 miles from Harlem around the same time. But nothing came to fruition for decades until, in 2017, just before Tulchin’s death, the producers of Summer of Soul finally came on board and recruited Ahmir Thompson (aka Questlove, the frontman of the Roots) to direct. 

As Summer of Soul – which opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival – unfolds, the fact that it took so long for Tulchin’s footage to see the light of day feels increasingly puzzling. Not only is the material stunning on its musical merits alone, but it also thrums with history, with the political and cultural currents of Black life in the 1960s. Questlove excavates these themes deftly through talking-head interviews with attendees, critics and the artists themselves, some of whom encounter the footage for the first time. 

A striking sequence illustrates the film’s time capsule-like power. A dashiki-clad Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death just a year ago, in 1968, after which Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples join forces to perform Precious Lord, Take My Hand, the song King had requested for his mass right before he was assassinated. As the two women bring the audience to rapture, Staples recalls in voiceover how awed she was when Jackson asked her to help sing the song. A community mourns, a crowd exults, and the baton passes from one generation to the next – all in one scene.

Questlove uses each of the film’s performances to conjure a different facet of the era and the community that the Harlem Cultural Festival emerged from. Ray Barreto’s drums lead into an exploration of Afro-Caribbean culture, while Hugh Masekela’s trumpets prompt a reflection on growing Pan-African consciousness. A virtuosic sequence illustrates how music helped African Americans articulate an alternative history of their times. The Staple Singers’ performance of It’s Been a Change – featuring the line “there will be a man on the moon” – is intercut rhythmically with archival man-on-the-street interviews about the moon landing. White interviewees respond with patriotic zeal, while their Black counterparts, some of whom are interviewed at the Harlem festival, decry the waste of resources that could have gone to alleviating poverty.

Some of the most joyous shots in Summer of Soul are those of the crowd, which paint a picture of all that coalesced around the festival. Rows and rows of Afros bob to the music, little girls and boys can be seen perched atop their parents’ shoulders, vendors hawk food and drink on the sidelines and the Black Panthers patrol the venue, providing security in lieu of a reluctant police. In the years in which Tulchin’s footage languished in obscurity, Summer of Soul lived on in the dreams of its attendees, some of whom vividly recall the smell of “Afro Sheen and chicken” and the feeling of being a part of something generation-defining. With Summer of Soul, Questlove gives solidity to their memories, ensuring their due place in the annals of American history.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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Originally published: 2 February 2021