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Sundance 2021: “Summer of Soul” is a cultural celebration

Summer of Soul Sundance

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival is insightful and loving.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

The word “Woodstock” enters consciousness at a young age. It has become synonymous with classic rock, with music festivals, and with a decade of counterculture. With an estimated 400,000, Woodstock cemented itself as a part of popular culture, an ironic shift in its original meaning and its now-reformed image.

During the same summer in 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts in Mt. Morris Park in Harlem in New York City. It drew around 300,000 folks in its celebration of Black culture. This festival does not hold the same place in music history, despite its importance, both culturally and politically, and riveting footage, which is the subject of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

In 1969, after a decade filled with protest, unrest, and the deaths of both high-profile politicians and civil rights leaders, the Harlem Cultural Festival took on more significance than a simple music festival. The footage, filmed over the entire summer, sat in a basement for the last 50 years, a point that the film hammers home. This footage comprises the majority of the documentary, intercut with images and videos of various movements, major players, and events that culminated in the festival. It’s crisp, clean, and breathtaking to watch and hear some of the most famous musicians, then and now, in one place over the course of a couple of months. They sound incredible, and stating any less would be quite the understatement.

Summer of Soul gives a reason to believe that the “concert film” should be in existence for a different reason: to highlight the unseen, the underappreciated, and the disregarded.

Questlove’s directorial debut represents a move forward for the musician, producer, actor, and cultural staple of the last 30 years. He guides the film in its justified attempt to place the Harlem Cultural Festival in the context of Harlem and of 1969. The musicians themselves remain his focus, grabbing interviews with many of the performers and several of the attendees, who speak of the event in life-altering phrases. More than anything, Questlove wants you to hear the music, though, sticking with complete songs from several acts, many of which were as big, or bigger, than those performing a few hours away in upstate New York.

Over the past few years, an influx of concert films have spread across streaming platforms, highlighting artists like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, and many other “popstars,” though none of these will compare to the ruinous story of Conner4Real. With these documentaries, fans glimpse into the personal lives of megastars, tapping into a built-in audience. Summer of Soul gives a reason to believe that the “concert film” should be in existence for a different reason: to highlight the unseen, the underappreciated, and the disregarded.

Questlove makes the case that the Harlem Cultural Festival, with performers like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and B.B. King, and security from the Black Panthers, should be considered a musical, cultural event sitting in history with the likes of Woodstock. It carried weight for hundreds of thousands of Black Americans in Harlem, an epicenter of soul and jazz. As one attendee explains, the Harlem Cultural Festival was an “eruption of spirit,” fueled by a changing socio-political landscape.

Summer of Soul is a celebration of Black music and culture, becoming a documentary that brings you to your feet, slipping on your dancing shoes in the process.

Summer of Soul played in the U.S. Documentary category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.