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Summer of Soul – Movie Review

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Summer of Soul – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

One of the best things about documentaries is the ability to let viewers know about an event or person they were previously unaware of. With Summer of Soul, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has restored over 50-year-old footage of a music festival that was unfortunately overshadowed by Woodstock. Occurring the same year, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival brought together many black musicians and singers to perform in front of a large crowd of people. Thompson does a nice job of packaging those performances together, along with providing context via further archival footage and new interviews. If Summer of Soul makes more people familiar with this event, it will definitely have done its job.

The number of musicians attending this event is quite impressive and many of the songs shown in the documentary have certainly become musical staples. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Glady Knights and the Pips is just a sample of the talents who appeared on that stage and played some of their biggest hits. It’s puzzling that this footage sat in a vault somewhere for so long, because these are legendary performers. That few saw the cultural and historical value of this festival until now defies explanation. Thompson and his team deserve credit for restoring the festival and piecing it together for Summer of Soul.

The various news clips edited into the film by Joshua L. Pearson provide the needed context for what Harlem was like in the late ‘60s, especially for the black commentary. Thompson manages to capture every facet of life, further providing a reason why the festival mattered to so many people who were there. It’s also great to see the massive crowds who came together to listen to the music. What you see is a group of people all collectively dancing and sometimes singing along and one gets an immediate sense of the communal environment. It’s also interesting looking at the festival through other historical events at the time.

The moon landing, for example, is considered one of the most important events of the late ‘60s. Yet to the people in Harlem, it was a waste of money better spent on helping those on Earth rather than bringing man to outer space. The Vietnam War also hangs over the festival, but the documentary shows what a needed moment of escapism the festival was. Thompson has managed to bring together a number of the performers to record new interviews and they provide some illuminating insights into what was happening on that stage. We also hear from reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault and her experiences working in journalism at a predominantly white newspaper. She’s someone who deserves a documentary of her own.

Summer of Soul works as both a concert film and an important account of life for black people living in America in the ‘60s. Ahmir Thompson successfully flows through each topic and each performance and his film gives us the hope that maybe the full, uncut footage can be presented one day. As a viewer, you get the opportunity to listen to these fantastic songs performed by the talented artists. However, there is also plenty of history shown and those hoping to learn a lot of new information about this event and the time period surrounding it will certainly get that.

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE