Summer of Love (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson creates a lovely soul tapestry of performances, crowd reactions, attendees and musicians at the greatest concert event you never heard of.
In the summer of 1969, there was a music festival that attracted hundreds of thousands of fans in a time of change and setting off a new cultural renaissance of music, fashion, community and politics.
Then there was that three-day mudbath at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York.
For the record, I love the 1970 concert documentary Woodstock. While D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 concert documentary Monterey Pop changed the way music performances were filmed, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (featuring as one of the film's editors some upstart named Scorsese) took the concert film to an epic scale, only to be challenged by (and not even close) 1975's The Song Remains the Same. OK, back to Harlem...
Summer of Soul captures never before released footage of these series of concerts aka The Harlem Cultural Festival from Mt. Morris Park in Harlem, New York City, U.S.A. Organized and directed by Tony Lawrence, a singer-schmoozer-entrepreneur-fashion plate- "hustler in the best sense," as one person in the film calls him.
A man of all trades who had the dream of building it and they came, even if all of the I's were not dotted and the T's not all crossed yet. He got Maxwell House Coffee to sponsor the concert series. Mayor John Lindsay appears on stage. The New York Police Department refused to work security for the series, so The Black Panthers took that job. There were no incidents with this concert security crew, unlike the Hell's Angels at Altamont less than a year later.
The concert series ran over six weeks, each week highlighting a particular genre. The series was filmed to be made into a feature film, even pitched as The Black Woodstock in an attempt to ride on the success of the Woodstock film. There were no buyers and the film/concert series were quickly forgotten... until now.
I had previously heard about these series of concerts, but hardly seen any footage. Finally seeing the footage gave me flashbacks to another famous music film that disappeared and finally saw the light of the day aka the 2019 film release of the 1972 Aretha Franklin gospel concert film Amazing Grace (reviewed on this website and my top film of that year). Like Amazing Grace, I wish there had been more time discussing the attempt to get this film picked up by a studio and how was the footage found, but that's what special features on DVDs and Blu-Rays are for (hint hint).
Unlike the other summer of '69 concert film, this one has talking heads discussing not only the festival but Harlem and the country at that time. One concert attendee described the event as a mixture of "Afro Sheen and chicken." A year after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (plus Malcolm X and President Kennedy prior), these series of concerts were needed.
The film doesn't shy away from the poverty and rising heroin epidemic that was also looming over the city. These concerts brought a much-needed distraction. Attendees in button-up shirts and straight hair were next to afros, dashikis and open shirts with no incidents to report.
It was great to see Fifth Dimension singers Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo watching their reaction to the footage and how they came to recording "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In." At the time some people said the band wasn't "black enough" for the times. To see these two grown people get lumps in their throats was a film highlight for me this year.
Plus an attendee at the end of the film (whose first serious celebrity crush was Marilyn McCoo) in tears happy to have seen the footage again and saying several times "I'm not crazy. This happened."
Sandwiched in between the much-needed history lesson is a slew of excellent performances from several genres of music. The Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Herbie Mann, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin (who just left The Temptations to go solo), Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Mongo Santamaria (you're welcome, fans of Blazing Saddles), Ray Barretto, Stevie Wonder (who also has a final moment after the closing credits), Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone just to name a few.
Of the performances, Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone get the most screen time. Mavis Staples tells of the moment she got to share the stage and sing with Mahalia Jackson. Jackson was supposed to start singing the hymn “Precious Lord.” According to Staples, Jackson whispered to her that she wasn't at full strength and that she should start the song. Staples does, Jackson soon chimes in and you get two generations of gospel greatness happening at once.
The biggest audience response of the screening was when we learned that one of the festival dates was the same day as the Moon landing. More than one Harlem resident on screen commented on where the NASA money could have been spent. This southside screening audience was in agreement.
Self-Indulgent Sidenote: My favorite response was from my 19-year-old daughter Emma (who also loved the film). Seeing 1969 B.B. King made her laugh and exclaim "I've never seen him so young!" I got to take Emma to a B.B. King concert at Indiana University when she was 4. This was when King was deep into the Blues Grandpa portion of his career. A large, older man sitting in a chair, sometimes telling stories that were longer than some of his songs. The thrill was there when my daughter got to see on the screen a younger, thinner King with one of the fastest guitar-playing wrists of any guitar player at that time.
"And he's standing!' she added.
Director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (founder of The Roots) creates a lovely soul tapestry of performances, crowd reactions, attendees and musicians who were there and a history lesson of Harlem and the United States at that time. Younger audiences will get a lot of knowledge and older folks will be reminded of how far we have and have not gone.
Running just under two hours, Summer of Soul delivers a great variety of music performances while sharing tales of the late 60s Harlem Renaissance. Woodstock was an hour longer and said less. When Summer of Soul gets a video release, I am hoping there's more concert footage to share, longer interviews (I know Chris Rock had a hell of a lot more to say) and more behind the scenes about the festival itself and the film's journey from film in dusty canisters to today.
Woodstock (the film) received an expanded edition on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009 to celebrate the 40 anniversary of the event. There was also a 50th anniversary collection, including a (now out of print) 38-disc collection of the entire weekend of music. Summer of Soul is so good and so important, it deserves the Woodstock treatment without the wait.
Matthew Socey is host of Film Soceyology for wfyi.org.