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SUMMER OF SOUL - Revisiting the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival!

SUMMER OF SOUL is directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. The film consists of new interviews and archival footage.

The same summer Woodstock was going on, there was another music festival going on a hundred miles away, over the course of six weekends in the summer of 1969. At times dubbed the “Black Woodstock” and with the footage recorded, said footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival faded into obscurity and was never released with the festival widely being forgotten… until now. The festival featured performances from a wide variety of (predominantly Black) artists, with security services even being provided by the Black Panther Party! The movie features footage of performances at the festival, of the (surprisingly huge) audience in attendance, new interviews with participants and attendees, and other vintage footage, painting a picture of the trying times at hand, when the festival was put on.

I’m a huge music fan. Yes, I gravitate towards classic rock, hard rock, and heavy metal. But my tastes are diverse and I love much of the work that Black artists were putting out in the 1960s. Despite this, I had never once heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival despite the gravitas of the artists who were performing (and believe me, there were some big ones here!) SUMMER OF SOUL is a fantastic must-see film resurrecting long-lost footage of this forgotten footnote in music history, Black history, and American history. While the film is admittedly a little on the long side, it must be seen to be believed, and is well worth experiencing.

The sheer variety of artists to be seen here is one of the greatest assets; how could this festival be forgotten with so many high profile artists? Performers include BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Staples Singers, and Steve Wonder, but there are also many other obscure artists, including many who brought more traditional/ethnic/tribal/African sounds to their performances. From the music legends to the more obscure performers, there’s so much to be seen and experienced here.

Of course, the film isn’t content to merely give footage from the festival. It’s a cultural experience, and the movie paints a picture of this bygone era with racial turmoil still ablaze in the United States, following the assassinations of individuals including John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most fascinating things about SUMMER OF SOUL is how radically different so many of the approaches to racial justice are. Many individuals merely want to live in peace. A performer at the festival asks audience members if they’re ready to kill for what they believe in (which gets a scary amount of applause). Injustices are seen from many perspectives, with many of these themes still existing, scarily enough, in modern society. SUMMER OF SOUL stands strong and will appeal to viewers from all backgrounds and creeds in this regard, however, because the movie never explicitly takes any one stand, showing multiple perspectives.

We even get modern interview footage here from staff who helped present the festival to individuals like Jesse Jackson (who actually attended the festival in his younger years) and Al Sharpton. Interviewees also include “everyman” attendees who went to the festival, and seeing this experience through their eyes does an even better job painting a picture of this forgotten landmark Black event.

Understandably with a film like this, the quality of the footage presented here differs in terms of quality and aspect ratios, but I’m glad to say most of it looks pretty solid and does a great job conveying the events at hand here. The sheer amount of content available is staggering and surprising, and who knows if we’ll get additional unused footage when the home video releases eventually arrive?

SUMMER OF SOUL is one of the greatest music documentaries this reviewer has ever seen, in that it sheds light on a forgotten event that certainly shouldn’t have faded into obscurity and locked in a vault. Questlove’s film is a revelation of the best kind, and it’s easily one of the best films of 2021. Four out of four stars. An absolute must-see.

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