Summer of Soul, the directorial debut of longtime Roots drummer and all-around musical celebrity Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is many great things, all at once. It’s a first-rate concert film, it’s an impressive excavation of never-before-seen footage, and it’s woven together with a heaping of the political context.
Billed as “A Questlove Jawn,” in a nod to the director’s Philadelphia heritage, Summer of Soul kicked off the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on the evening of January 29.
Presented under the official title Summer of Soul: The Revolution That Could Not Be Televised, the film chronicles The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that were held at a park in Harlem on a series of weekends in the summer of 1969. The event featured a who’s-who of important Black musical artists from various genres, from Mavis Staples to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Sly and the Family Stone to B.B. King.
The festival took place the same summer as Woodstock, which was the subject of a popular documentary, and instantly became a household part of boomer popular culture. The Harlem Cultural Festival, though, never did. It was filmed extensively, but no one ever acquired the footage, which ended up sitting on a shelf for the ensuing 50 years, while the festival itself became something of a cultural footnote.
Some producers discovered the footage a little over a decade ago and hired Questlove to direct. Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, is listed as an executive producer, showing that Lucie has been making much better decisions of late when it comes to his entertainment industry ventures than he has for his football team.
Summer of Soul does a lot of great things at once. It presents the great musical footage itself. It shows us some of the participants watching the footage and reflecting on it, most notably Billy Davis, Jr., and Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension. There’s also much discussion of how the performances fit in with the historical context. The Festival was just over a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and we see the Rev. Jesse Jackson on stage remembering his late friend. The film also goes a bit into the story of how the 45 hours footage never emerged.
There are some truly standout musical highlights, from Nina Simone singing “Young, Talented and Black,” to a very young Stevie Wonder playing multiple instruments, to the Fifth Dimension duo telling the well-worn but great story about how he had left his wallet in a New York City taxi cab, only to have it found by a producer of the musical “Hair,” leading to the historic musical collaboration on “The Age of Aquarius,” which brought the Black and white countercultures together.
And at the end, we see some of the performers and attendees moved to tears as if finally seeing the footage has reassured them that those concerts in the summer of 1969 weren’t just their imagination.
Summer of Soul shows that Questlove has seemingly limitless potential as a film director and that there’s almost certainly a lot of other concert footage sitting on shelves somewhere that hasn’t been seen in 50 or so years.