By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
In 1969, during the same exact summer that the legendary Woodstock Music Festival made its mark on human history, another music festival was already taking place in New York and had an indelible impact on the culture of Black America. That was the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was a series of concerts held in Harlem, Manhattan beginning June 29, 1969. While the Woodstock Music Festival would receive more fame and notoriety, the Harlem Cultural Festival would eventually get ignored by both television and film producers. That is until recently, when musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson would make his directorial debut with an amazing documentary/concert film celebrating the music and influence that the festival has had on the Black people in America.
Using some incredible footage captured by a film crew, but never before released, Questlove and his crew utilize and restore this material beautifully. The director includes multiple interviews with artists participating in the festival, people who made this festival possible, and surviving audience members who got to witness, first hand, this incredible experience that has been overlooked for way too long. The film features amazing performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staples, The Fifth Dimension, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and more.
Director Questlove does a fantastic job in putting together an outstanding celebration of the Harlem Cultural Festival and how it represents an important piece of Black history. The film discusses the evolution of Black music and how the festival represents that journey–from gospel and blues and the vocal groups that crossed over to the mainstream to they beyond with the psychedelic funk and multicultural impact of Sly and the Family Stone. This documentary/concert film is not only a celebration of Black music, it is a piece of history that reflects the many facets and changes that the music went through in American pop culture history.
Summer of Soul is a film that will be available for viewing on Hulu, but I genuinely feel that this amazing documentary should be experienced on the biggest screen available and with the music pumping through the best sound system possible. It is certainly one of the year’s best offerings so far.