The Harlem Cultural Festival was a massive musical happening, spread over six weeks of 1969’s sweltering summer. Tens of thousands concert-goers crammed into Harlem’s Mount Morris Park to hear an all-star lineup of Black musicians, but they ended up with even more than that: This marked a socio-political crossroads, when Black music took on a heightened role as an instrument of cultural change. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, and Nina Simone channeled all the frustration, cynicism, joy, and hope of everywhere the Movement had been into a guide of where it now needed to go. This incandescent experience was filmed for television, but the footage has spent a mind-boggling 50 years moldering in a studio closet. Now, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson delivers Summer of Soul, a crisp, brilliant restoration that’s both irresistibly vibrant and undeniably topical.
Questlove skillfully intersperses the footage with contemporary interviews, both of festival attendees and performers. Their reactions overflow with bittersweet nostalgia–laughter and tears often intermingle. Along the way, Soul becomes more than a mere document of history: This is a testament to the unique power of music to unite disparate people with different aims under a single banner. Some attendees wanted to lose themselves. Others searched for new identity or greater purpose. Whatever the reasons, we can now bear witness to thousands of individual stories coming together to experience the magic of music as one body.
That same voodoo can also be found in watching these performances 50 years after the fact. Stevie Wonder is a teenager, brimming with furious energy and still a few years away from the brilliant run of albums that would demolish the music industry as we know it. Sly Stone rolls out with his diverse family of funk ambassadors, and they energize the crowd with standards like “Everyday People.” That goes ditto for Gladys Knight at the Pips, who unleash a rollicking, extended take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The festival finds its deepest soul when Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples team up on the stunning “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” (Their rendition is introduced by Jesse Jackson, who also gives a harrowing account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final moments.) Nina Simone plays a raw, propulsive version of “Mr. Backlash,” a protest song featuring lyrics from Langston Hughes.
At its most visceral level, Summer of Soul gives us a new glimpse at monumentally talented people in their absolute prime. It may not match the intricate, 4k update of Peter Jackson’s Get Back, but you’d also never guess this footage had spent five decades languishing in storage. The music shines with impressive clarity, especially on the bottom end. As such, it’s almost impossible to not get lost in Soul‘s deep groove. After fifty years, the revolution finally is to be televised, and we’re all the richer for it.
118 min. PG-13. Hulu.