Summer belongs to live music. In a normal year, you’d find me spending the last few days of July at Mo Pop Festival in Detroit, having an overpriced drink and sweating next to the Detroit River, listening to whichever indie group might be headlining. The experience of being at a live event with thousands of other good-natured people, listening to good music, is by no means exclusive to the summer, but it is at its best in the warm weather. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his filmmaking debut, certainly recognizes this in its recounting of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place over six weekends from June to August. It was a free event that accommodated an audience of over 300,000 and featured legendary Black and brown artists including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Mongo Santamaría and Nina Simone. When it was over, hours of footage shot with the intention to immortalize the event spent over 50 years sitting in a basement, unseen. The festival fell away into history, largely overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place during the same summer.
“Summer of Soul” takes the lost 34 hours of film and whittles them down to an excellent, joyful two hours. Highlights include Mavis Staples and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. (who was assassinated the previous April), David Ruffin of the Temptations hitting impossible whistle tones in “My Girl” and Nina Simone calling an audience of thousands of Black people to revolution with “Are You Ready?” Most of the performances go uninterrupted by commentary, and by showing each in its entirety, Questlove invites viewers to appreciate the monumentality of the event and feel the same wonder the live audience did. After each performance, the question of how the festival was so easily forgotten by history grows more and more present as the talent displayed overwhelms.
Archival footage and interviews with attendees, performers and, to a lesser extent, celebrities (the ever-ubiquitous Lin-Manuel Miranda makes an appearance) fill in contextual blanks. They reflect on the cultural and historical circumstances within which the festival existed: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the moon landing, the Black is Beautiful and Back-to-Africa movements, Harlem’s heroin epidemic. The film’s efforts to include all of these things make it feel somewhat overstuffed at times, but it succeeds in creating a holistic picture of the time and highlights the impact and necessity of the event to the people of Harlem, N.Y.
An interview with one attendee, Musa Jackson, bookends the documentary. At the end of the film, after being shown footage of the event, Jackson comments tearfully, “You put memories away, and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real. So, it’s almost confirmation that what I knew is real.” Concluding with this sentiment powerfully underscores a large part of the film’s message: the importance of remembrance and the acknowledgment of the power of choice in what is immortalized and what slips away.
The film’s subtitle — “(…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” — is a reference and small amendment to the title of Gil Scott Heron’s spoken-word poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The slight change in language is essential, and it gets to the very heart of “Summer of Soul”’s purpose and message. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a weeks-long display of talent and joy that hosted some of the greatest Black and brown performers of its time but was nearly lost because producers and distributors were uninterested in the material. This is indicative not only of the insidious racial biases that creep into the process of choosing what to remember and memorialize but a great misunderstanding of what audiences will find worthy of recollection. “Summer of Soul”’s revival of the event’s legacy, with help from those who were there to witness it themselves, proves that despite the passage of 50 years, people want to remember the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.