By Lynn Venhaus
Just 100 miles south of Woodstock, another music fair and similar Aquarian exposition took place in an urban enclave during the summer of 1969. We would not know about the Harlem Cultural Festival had Questlove not shared this historical record with us.
During that fateful summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park over the course of six weeks. It featured some of the biggest gospel, rhythm & blues, and pop stars of that era. The footage was never seen and largely forgotten – until now.
“Summer of Soul,” with the subtitle, “…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised,” takes us to church while teaching us about Black history, culture and fashion.
As the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson powerfully captures a time, an epic and electric event that meant so much to the peaceful crowd that came to share the universal language of music – changing the way we viewed the voices of our generation.
For some, it was a spiritual reckoning. For others, an example of the healing power of music, particularly at a time of great unrest.
Watching this with an audience, you will get your groove on – it’s hard not to feel the energy of Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension and the passion of Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Mavis Staples, and David Ruffin.
Between June 29 and Aug. 24, 1969, about 300,000 people attended the festival – young, old, families, couples, friends and neighbors.
This film won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is Questlove’s debut as a director, and he displays a keen sense of storytelling and appreciation for the history — you can’t have a movie set 52 years ago without giving some context. You may know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on “The Tonight Show” or from his work with “A Tribe Called Quest.”
The Vietnam War was raging, civil rights were being fought for, America was changing in its landscape and values. It was a time of great flux, but Questlove focuses on the strong sense of pride and unity among African Americans, now referring to themselves as Black.
He captures those feelings in the personal reflections of people who were there – in the audience and the musicians on stage who are still living.
St. Louisans Marilyn McCoo, 77, and Billy Davis Jr., 83, talk about their struggles trying to fit in as The 5th Dimension. Their backstory about the band’s no. 1 hit in ’69 – “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is one of the most interesting.
Questlove has gathered an eclectic group to serve as the ‘talking heads.’ There are modern entertainers – Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his activist father, Luis Miranda, plus actor-producer Musa Jackson and former New York Times reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who beautifully frame the event by looking back – and what it means moving forward.
Above all, the film is a glorious celebration of music, as ebullient as the beaming faces in the crowd and those moved to dance, exuding such palpable joy.
“Summer of Soul” stands tall among a crowded field of recent outstanding music documentaries. You won’t soon forget what you learn and how you feel during the nearly two-hour run time.
“Summer of Soul” is a 2021 documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material and runs 1 hour, 57 minutes. It is in theaters and streaming on Hulu beginning July 2. Lynn’s Grade: A
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.