If you’ve ever wondered what a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder was doing in 1969 at the exact moment that Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon, finally, courtesy of Amhir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s spellbinding documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), we have our answer. He was mesmerising a predominantly black crowd with a jaw-dropping, spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing drum solo at the Harlem Cultural Festival, a festival featuring an A-list cast of black musical luminaries which was inexplicably struck from the history books – until now.
With performances that should have been etched into music and cultural history from the moment veteran TV director Hal Tulchin’s cameras began recording, one central question hovers over the film: how did 40 hours of footage spend half a century collecting dust in a basement whilst Woodstock, which took place during the same summer, crystallised into the defining concert of late 1960s pop culture, abetted by an award-winning documentary? Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson’s duet on the hymn ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ is rapturous enough to turn an atheist into a believer, BB King and his guitar are on fire, Nina Simone’s performance of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ is as awe-inspiring as her geometric hairdo, convincing us that if it wasn’t a ground-breaking music festival, the festival would have made history as a colourful festival of fashion.
First-time director Questlove curates the footage like a veteran filmmaker, intertwining Tulchin’s original footage, with archival news reports and modern-day interviews. As easy as it is to get lost in the musical performances, as Gladys Knight reflects: ‘it wasn’t just about the music, we wanted progress’. One sequence compresses the assassinations of JFK, Malcom X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy into a moving montage of each commenting on the murder of the other before being killed themselves. Then there’s the Vietnam War, the jingoistic moon landing concurrent with Harlem’s poverty and heroin epidemic, and journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s battle for the New York Times to use the term ‘black’ instead of ‘Negro’. Nevertheless, even during history lessons about bleak winters of discontent, the joy and hope manifested by the rhythms of a soulful summer never exit the frame. Breathing in the sheer eloquence of every performance is a perfect reminder that joy, and a childish sense of wonder are never further away than a Motown playlist or a rousing gospel duet.
Festivalgoer Musa Jackson, who is moved to tears upon viewing footage of the festival, describes it as being ‘the ultimate black barbeque’. 52 years later, Questlove reincarnates the festival for us as the ultimate viewing experience, as exhilarating as it is insightful. He weaves an emotional tapestry at once angry and frustrated, but also joyful, loving, and hopeful – it’s a tapestry of the black experience which sways to the beat of the music. Summer of Soul deserves to be seen in cinemas, but don’t count on your body or your soul being able to sit still.