Before you do anything else, you should add Summer of Soul to your (probably long) list of things to watch. Streaming on Hulu, the new must-see documentary depicts the magical summer of 1969, which was the year of the iconic Woodstock festival: you know, the semi-mythical cornucopia of rock music that captured the zeitgeist of a cultural era. But Summer of Soul isn’t a movie about Woodstock; there are plenty of those already. No—it’s about another music festival, one that far fewer people remember, and most don’t even know existed: The Harlem Cultural Festival.
Director Questlove’s Summer of Soul takes us into the heart of Harlem, New York, where the most prominent and iconic Black musicians performed over the course of a six-part concert series during the summer of 1969. The footage of those performances is so spectacular, and the film’s commentary so engaging, that viewers will never think about the summer of Woodstock without also remembering the mini revolution that took place downtown at Mount Morris Park in the city. A revolution not televised… until now.
When Questlove, or the music encyclopedia as he’s come to be known, was asked to direct the Summer of Soul, he admitted, in astonishment, that he’d never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. If Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of the Roots, author, movie producer, and music scholar, hadn’t heard about the festival—it’s safe to say it disappeared from society’s collective memory. Thankfully, Questlove agreed to tell the story of that summer; stitching hours of concert film together, providing the historical and cultural context, and appealing to our yearning souls. He said that the hardest part, by far, of making the movie was having to cut out performance footage. If Questlove were left to his own devices, there’s no doubt the movie would be a docuseries containing all 45 hours of magic that lives on the surviving film. and that took place on stage in Mount Morris Park.
Here’s a list of the performances that did make the final cut:
- Stevie Wonder kicks things off, with his slick brown suit and bright yellow shirt, singing his heart out and banging passionately on the drums like a kid who can’t and won’t sit still.
- The Chambers Brothers from Mississippi had a groovy time singing about their desire to “go uptown to Harlem.”
- B.B. King, the legendary blues guitarist, spoke a language only he knows, as he bends and slides the strings on his red electric guitar, carrying a facial expression that lives and dies with every note.
- The 5th Dimension performed their soulful gospel-tinged music in Harlem for the first time that summer, debunking the myth that they were a white group, as many people at the time had thought.
- The Edwin Hawkins Singers, backed by a gospel choir, sang Oh Happy Day. Despite the song’s religious roots, the church didn’t approve of the hit song at the time.
- Pops Staples and The Staple Singers brought the hand-clapping gospel flare from Chicago. But while gospel might have been core to their music, Pops Staples had to clarify to his daughter Mavis at the time that their music was just as much blues and folk as it was gospel: “Listen to our music. You will hear every kind of music in our songs.”
- Prof. Herman Stevens and the Voices Faith, Clara Walker & The Gospel Redeemers, and Mahalia Jackson all performed explosive and liberating gospel music, driving members of the crowd into beautiful bouts of cathartic hysteria.
- Ben Branch: As Ben Branch played the saxophone on stage, Reverend Jesse Jackson told an unforgettable story about the artist’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ultimately, Dr. King’s last words before his assasination were to Ben Branch, when he asked Branch to play his favorite song: Precious Lord, Take My Hand. In tribute to Dr. King, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, and others blessed the audience at Mount Morris Park with a transcendental rendition of the reverend’s favorite song. (Their duet is the most epic moment of the documentary).
- David Ruffin of the Temptations, representing Motown’s finest, opened with his group’s classic My Girl. (In an interesting digression into the dynamics of the music industry, the documentary cut to the VP of Motown Records at the time, who concisely articulated the purpose of Detroit’s Motown records: “to put Black music on wax… to widen the distribution of Black ideas.”) At the Harlem Cultural Festival, David Ruffin was certainly distributing his ideas, but not exactly to the crowd Motown would have anticipated.
- Gladys Knight & The Pips performed Motown’s soul classic Heard It Through the Grapevine, and delivered the best choreographed dancing that’s captured in the documentary.
- Sly & The Family Stone: The crowd went nuts for the legendary ‘two-toned’ psychedelic soul group, whose style and swagger was impressionable enough to inspire at least one contemporary group to go from suit and tie guys to ‘no longer suit and tie guys.’ Their hit song I Am Everyday People takes on a new meaning watching them perform it at the Harlem festival.
- Mongo Santamaría performed Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, which Lin-Manuel Miranda describes as the place where “Cuban music meets jazz.” Then they brought out the iconic conga percussionist Ray Barretto, or “the original New Yorican” (a New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots)
- Sonny Sharrock, a jazz guitarist, riffed and shredded masterfully on his abused guitar.
- Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach, the power singer-drummer couple, lived life “unapologetically Black,” and made music that could serve as a soundtrack for the global civil rights movement.
- Hugh Masekela came to New York from Africa during the height of the apartheid, and brought the sounds of authentic African music with him. At the festival, he played his hit song Grazing in the Grass on the trumpet.
- Nina Simone, introduced by the emcee Tony Lawrence as ‘the first lady of soul,’ came on stage and wasted no time sending strong messages through her poignant song Backlash Blues and her inspirational To Be Young, Gifted, & Black.
What 300,000 concert-goers got to experience in person 50 years ago, the world now gets to watch up close and personal. As the musical time capsule that is Summer of Soul shares its treasures, it evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for a foregone era, while not ignoring the significant cultural and political challenges of the period. Observations in the documentary like ‘black performers used to only be in suits on stage’ reveal just how special this event truly was. In its best and most illuminating moments, the Summer of Soul demonstrates how sublime art can be, as it shakes us loose of reality and sends us into a pulsing, temporary utopia.
Here are our 5 major takeaways from Summer of Soul:
Footage from ‘The Harlem Cultural Festival’ had never been seen until the release of Summer of Soul. Basically, Hal Tulchin, who had all the precious footage of the concert series, couldn’t get the funding to put together a commercial project back then. Since Woodstock was getting all the attention at the time, Tulchin says he tried promoting the Harlem festival as the ‘Black Woodstock’, but still “nobody was interested in it.” It’s hard for us to comprehend a world in which nobody was interested in these spectacular performances… but somehow that was the reality 50 years ago.
The festival was partially designed to ‘turn down the temperature’ in New York City after a decade marred by violence and disillusionment. JFK was assassinated in ‘63. Malcolm X in ‘65. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘68. Robert Kennedy later in ‘68. Following the assassination of MLK, widespread violence and rioting broke out across the country, which later became know as the Holy Week Uprising. Then there was the Vietnam War, which disproportionately affected Black Americans. Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panthers, summarized how his community felt at the time: “Black America has lost faith in this country – many of us have seen too many of our leaders get killed.” Darryl Lewis, one of the festival’s attendees we see in the film, believes the Harlem festival was born out of this fragile moment in history: “the Harlem festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in 1969.”
Many concert-goers found the festival more relevant than the Apollo 11 moon landing, which also happened that summer. While Pops Staples and The Staples Singers sing in the background, we see a montage of clips showing White and Black Americans’ reactions to the news that the country has landed on the moon. Their contrasting responses are telling. While White Americans saw it as cause for celebration, the Black men and women interviewed questioned America’s priorities; their reactions were along the lines of: “they’re spending all that money on getting white men to the moon while Black people are going hungry in our communities?”
The festival would never have happened without the emcee Tony Lawrence. The Harlem Cultural Festival was Tony Lawrence’s big idea. The lounge singer, concert promoter, and hustler used his contagious enthusiasm to win the support of the Parks department, the New York City mayor John Lindsay, and everyone one else you’d possibly need approval from in order to put on a major six-part outdoor event series. And dammit, he did it. (And he even got Maxwell House coffee as a sponsor).
It’s emotional watching the artists and fans who were at the festival watch the tape for the first time. This one is pretty self-explanatory. These are the most beautiful moments of the documentary.