Thursday, July 1, 2021

Summer of Soul - Review

Over 50 years ago, in the summer of 1969, thousands of people gathered for a festival that celebrated music, love, and culture. And no it’s not the festival you’re thinking of. About 100 miles south of the famed Woodstock was another gathering in Harlem, the Harlem Cultural Festival. Taking place over 6 weeks that summer, and filmed almost in its entirety, the footage had been lost for decades. That is until Questlove got his hands on it and transformed it into one of the best music documentaries in years.

Often times, it feels like archival documentaries don’t quite know what they have. Usually that means the filmmakers have relied too heavily on letting the footage play out in sequential order, or cutting away from moments that can speak for themselves so that someone from today can explain it. Questlove doesn’t have any trouble here. Yes, there are cutaways to interviews, but they’re often used to explain the climate of 1969 or the support from the mayor at the time, never to explain the music and how truly magnificent it was.

Many of the performances showcased are allowed to play out entirely, giving the audience a glimpse of what the festival felt like 51 years ago. When a fresh faced, 19-year-old Stevie Wonder gets on stage to whomp on the drums, it’s electric. When Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples return to the stage to sing in honor of Martin Luther King Jr, it’s powerful and emotional. And the film runs the spectrum of emotions in between, all leading the inevitable and glorious appearance of Nina Simone singing “Backlash Blues” near the conclusion.

It’s a travesty that this footage sat in a basement for as long as it did. Now, in 2021, it’s a window into the past, a glimpse at the power the music possessed in a community in turmoil at the end of the 60s. What it meant then, and especially what it means now, can best be summed up by the look of unbridled joy on Musa Jackson’s face at the start and finish of one of the year’s best films. 

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