The sounds and images in Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) remind me of my childhood. The concerts captured in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut took place a decade before I entered the world, but the music – from My Girl and Watermelon Man to Why I Sing the Blues and Everyday People – was the soundtrack of my childhood. The gorgeous grittiness of the landscape and the crowds of black and Latino New Yorkers from every walk of life evoke a New York that still existed in the 1980’s, a version of the city that has become a long since faded memory. The city had not begun the process of transforming into a billionaire tourist wonderland, and neighborhoods still had character (and were filled with ordinary people of all ages, shapes and sizes). I watched Summer of Soul at home and was unable to resist the urge to pause the film at points to look more closely at a particular image that captured the essence of life in the city. It felt particularly powerful in 2021, after a year spent in near isolation, away from live music, my family and the city that I grew up in and once called home.
Summer of Soul is a moving celebration of black people and the culture we created. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson blends footage from a six week series of concerts that were part of Harlem’s 1969 Cultural Festival with news clips, archival video and modern interviews to help us understand how a series of amazing concerts that should have been an essential part of American music history were almost lost to time. I would’ve been more than satisfied with a Monterey Pop style doc that simply presented a cleaned up version of the archival footage, but was amazed to find a film that places these concerts within the broader context of black (and American) culture, politics and history. Questlove pulls in everything from the heroin crisis and the moon landing to the political violence of the era and the cultural shifts within the black community (and popular music). We don’t just see the links between black music and the black liberation movement, but the ways in which the two were deeply integrated.
Thompson gives us the expected interviews with musicians and celebrities, but we also hear from the ordinary people who attended, some of whom are moved to tears by witnessing footage from a legendary concert that almost faded into myth.
We see a Harlem in transition after a decade filled with tragedy and promise. An audience that captures the amazing diversity of the black community. We see people of all shades and ages. Men and women in formal clothing dancing next to young teenagers in hip clothing and a shirtless gentleman with a leather vest. Fans of gospel, Motown r&b, proto-funk, Latin music, jazz (American and South African!), and psychedelic pop, along with some folk who look like they were just there to catch a show.
Summer of Soul is a timely reminder that some of the best music helps connect us with joy and love and process pain and trauma. This is in the text of the film – delivered through the powerful interviews with concert goers and critics like Greg Tate, but is also a service provided by the film itself. I was moved by the beautiful art and joyous people on display, brought to tears by the songs of tribute and moved to dance too many times to count.
Quest uses the non-musical components of the film to achieve the same goal. We hear from music fans whose tastes were transformed by the concert and from those who found their joy in the family, friends and community that surrounded them.
We see so much joy. But the pain is there in the faces of the community that is still mourning the losses of 1968 and actively fighting systemic racism (and for greater economic security). It’s present for those who are worried about the increasing prevalence of heroin use in Harlem and those struck by the dark irony of a society eager to spend money on a manned mission to the moon but reluctant to invest in its own communities.
The pain and struggle are also visible in the story behind this documentary, of why this footage remained unused for such a long period of time. I was struck by how easily this monumental concert series faded from our collective memory, even within the black community (or within the community of those devoted to black music!). It’s an uncomfortable reminder of the low value that some place on our culture.
This is a documentary film filled with ideas and themes, but Quest never lets the audience leave the concert, and I’m grateful for it. It’s amazing to imagine a concert series featuring Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Pop Staples and the Staple Singers, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Moms Mabley, David Ruffin, and so many more. We see Stone in the moment before Woodstock, Wonder as he was starting to transition from a prodigy to a full fledged artistic genius, when Staples picked up the torch and Ruffin left the Temptations behind. I was introduced to the Fifth Dimension and learned about the differences between Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria’s drumming techniques from Sheila E. It’s the music that will inspire me to return to this beautiful documentary.