[AFI Docs 2021 Review]: ‘SUMMER OF SOUL’ gives us Harlem’s “Black Woodstock” for the very first time


Travis Leamons // Film Critic


Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.
Director:  Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Performances include: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Mahalia Jackson
Featuring: Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel and Luis Miranda

In theaters and on Hulu on July 2

Black Woodstock

Ever heard of it? Probably not. But if you fall into the “Boomer” category or are really into music, then the other Woodstock certainly rings a bell. The original, not the Xennials’ 1994 version, or the 30th anniversary (1999) where our documentary’s director would play.   

Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, is the drummer and joint frontman with The Roots. He had never heard of the concert series originally pitched as “Black Woodstock” and shot by Hal Tulchin (NINA SIMONE: THE SOUND OF SOUL) the same summer as the other famed concert. Pretty impressive considering Thompson is also a music journalist and historian. Once he learned the concert footage still existed – with most of the footage never before released (aside from televised specials airing late Saturday evenings in June-August 1969) – he knew he had to make these performances visible. 

His initial idea was to make a concert film with no context, similar to 2018’s AMAZING GRACE, in which Alan Elliott took footage shot by Sydney Pollack as Aretha Franklin records her gospel album “Amazing Grace” over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. The album would become the best-selling album of Franklin’s career and for gospel music. No added context is necessary.

Then, as he was culling through more than 40 hours of musical performances and restoring footage for the concert film, came the rise of BLM after the death of George Floyd. Plans of making it strictly a music compilation of artists and entertainers changed. 

Questlove’s SUMMER OF SOUL curates a celebration of the black experience at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. For six weekends, the lawns of Mt. Morris Park were packed by residents as they came together to listen to gospel, blues, and the sounds of Motown. What made the event so special and why has it been lost for more than fifty years, this is where context is valued. 

Questlove uses interviews with performers (including Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples) and some of the original attendees and notable celebrities (Chris Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda) to get us up to speed and show the changes that were occurring at this time. Harlem was a community strengthened despite high poverty rates and drug addiction. The neighborhood even thumbs its nose at the moon landing calling it a waste of money. The sentiments shared as part of a newscast leave a reporter at a loss for words. Racism, mounting hunger, and police brutality, and a news show wants to know the city of Harlem feels about landing on the moon. It’s one of the great highlights, the mix of commentary and human achievement, and it’s crazy how shockingly relevant it is today. 

Regrettably, the commentary delivered by most of the talking heads offers mostly reflection, little insight. Charlayne Hunter-Gault with “The New York Times” is the exception. Fifty years as a journalist, she was a metropolitan reporter specializing in covering news and events in the black community. The Harlem Cultural Festival was one of those events. Her awareness and actually being there has more heft than the artists and celebrities that make appearances. Considering she was 27 at the time of the festival and can remember the event in her late seventies like it was yesterday–reflections from Hunter-Gault are excellent. 

Also to be cherished are the extraordinary performances. Stevie Wonder playing the drums with thunderous force is where it starts. The hits keep coming with Mahalia Jackson (her soul-stirring duet with Mavis Staples on “Jesus” is a must-see), The Fifth Dimension (“Aquarius”), and Sonny Sharrock playing guitar as if he were going to bore a hole right through the neck. The culmination is Nina Simone with her musical rendition of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” written in memory of Simone’s late friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”). This would be the song’s first performance, and it would appear on Simone album “Black Gold,” recorded October 1969.

Musically, SUMMER OF SOUL lifts up black art, and these performances are a gift. The minutes spent with Sly and the Family Stone is something else. The way the audience starts to sway and converge as the band is announced, I thought something was brewing. Crowd control was the least of concerns. No, the Harlem residents stood in awe of the group’s attire – loud, colorful threads, not suit and tie – and wondering why white guys were in the band and a woman playing the trumpet. Perhaps Sly and his family should have played “Everyday People” to get the point across.

Historically, the documentary is a snapshot of political and racial instability, and Questlove Indiana Jones’s his way to make sure it’s not subject to further Black Erasure. Thanks to him and SUMMER OF SOUL, finally, the revolution will be televised and no longer stand in the shadows of Woodstock.

Grade: B+ 

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