Movies

Summer of Soul Is an Electrifying Rebuttal to the Worship of Woodstock

Questlove’s directorial debut is a work of art—and time travel.

Four artists (three men in suits, one woman in a dress) stand on a stage performing against a multicolored backdrop that reads FESTIVAL.
Gladys Knight (far right) performs with the Pips during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Searchlight Pictures

The ’60s might be American culture’s most relentlessly mythologized decade, and nowhere has that mythmaking industry been more successful than in our collective memory of its music festivals. Woodstock has become a shorthand for the counterculture’s zenith, Altamont for its nadir, while Monterey—which featured superstar-making turns by Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin—was arguably more important than either of the two. The lingering power of these events is inextricable from the films that were made of them: D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) produced some of the most indelible imagery in all of rock ’n’ roll, including Hendrix immolating his Stratocaster at the close of “Wild Thing.” Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a Best Editing nomination for a young Thelma Schoonmaker (who worked on the film alongside her future collaborator, Martin Scorsese). Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont, Gimme Shelter (1970), is often cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made of any kind. Between them, these movies largely invented the visual language of the rock ’n’ roll concert film, ensuring that the events they documented would become objects of fantasy for generations to come.

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The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, held on six consecutive Sundays throughout that summer, has not generally been spoken of in the same hushed tones as its more storied contemporary counterparts. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new film Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) goes a long way toward redressing that. The doc shines an overdue spotlight on an enormously successful festival, which provided a powerful musical gathering place for the city’s Black and brown populations and offered a showcase for luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, and Mahalia Jackson.

The Harlem Cultural Festival is one of those events that often gets described as “forgotten,” but that isn’t really true—it’s well-known to anyone familiar with New York in the late 1960s, it was widely covered in its day, and more recently, Daphne Brooks wrote a terrific historical essay about it for the New York Times in 2019. Even more importantly, it was certainly never forgotten by the hundreds of thousands of people who attended it, many of whom are still with us and some of whom appear in Questlove’s film.

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What the festival has not been is available to watch, even though a professional film crew filmed it; the footage sat unreleased for 50-plus years before Questlove brought it to the screen. (The film premiered at Sundance in January and will begin streaming on Hulu on Friday.) Summer of Soul is the drummer’s directorial debut, and he proves himself to be a deft and strikingly assured filmmaker. There’s often a tendency in documentaries like this to jam things up with well-credentialed talking heads waxing hyperbolically about the subject’s cosmic significance, but Summer of Soul largely eschews this, allowing the performances themselves to take center stage and the images on screen, beautiful and newly alive, to speak for themselves.

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The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (there were 1967 and 1968 iterations as well, but they were less ambitious affairs) was the brainchild of promoter/singer Tony Lawrence, who was a fixture on stage throughout the event. The festival’s organizers managed to secure sponsorship from Maxwell House and the support of the New York City government. (John Lindsay, the city’s liberal Republican mayor, even takes the stage at one point, amusingly introduced by Lawrence as a “blue-eyed soul brother.”) As the film recounts, the city’s investment in the festival was not entirely altruistic, as the concert series was seen by its power brass as a potential bulwark against the unrest and uprisings that had marked previous summers, both locally and nationwide.

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Summer of Soul includes some wonderful retrospective testimonials from performers, including Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, and Stevie Wonder. But even more affecting are present-day interviews with audience members, many of whom were adolescents at the time and seem profoundly moved by the opportunity to revisit such a formative musical experience. Their recollections are affecting, charming, and frequently funny—one attendee recalls his shock at discovering that Greg Errico, the monstrously funky drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, was a long-haired white guy.

But the real attraction is the music, as it should be. There is a remarkable amount of stylistic diversity on display, including pop (David Ruffin, Gladys Knight and the Pips), jazz (Sonny Sharrock, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln), blues (B.B. King), boogaloo (Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto). There’s also a generous helping of gospel, a programming decision that likely doubled as a canny olive branch to an older demographic of Harlemites who might otherwise have bristled at the idea of rock stars like Sly Stone and the Fifth Dimension (and their legions of young fans) intruding onto their Sunday afternoons.

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And of course there are the performances themselves, some of which capture absolutely legendary artists at fascinating points in their career. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, representing two generations of musical royalty, duet on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” notably the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite gospel song. A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder performs “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and takes a blistering clavinet solo through a wah-wah pedal, a preview of what would soon become one of the signature sounds of Wonder’s 1970s reign. And if Summer of Soul finds Wonder on the cusp of his imperial period, it finds Sly in the full flower of his own, delivering jaw-dropping renditions of “Sing a Simple Song” and “I Want to Take You Higher” with the irresistible force of the Family Stone behind him.

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One of the thorny truths about the ’60s’ most “iconic” music festivals is that they were often overwhelmingly white lineups and conceived as such. For all of the utopian peace-and-love bromides that have long clung to Woodstock, Sly and the Family Stone was the only act on the bill with any significant presence on Billboard’s R&B charts, and the festival’s remote rural location made it difficult to access for urban audiences. The extent to which these choices were deliberately exclusionary has been a subject of debate over the years, but it’s clear that Woodstock’s (and Altamont’s, and to a lesser degree Monterey’s) vision of the ideal hippie music enthusiast was a white one, a vision that was also often reflected in the way these festivals were filmed.

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This bias also probably goes a long way toward explaining why we’ve never seen the footage shown in Summer of Soul before now. The Harlem Cultural Festival has long been referred to as “Black Woodstock,” which is a misnomer in several respects. (For starters, the Festival kicked on June 29, and Woodstock didn’t start until Aug. 15.) But when the original filmmakers tried to shop their footage to distributors in the event’s aftermath, “Black Woodstock” was how they pitched it (understandably, given the success of Wadleigh’s film), and they couldn’t find any takers. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the long-standing Hollywood belief that there wasn’t a reliable audience for “Black” films. But it also speaks to the already-hardening idea that music festivals, and films about them, were fundamentally white affairs—to put it glibly, the notion of a “Black” Woodstock might have sounded about as incongruous to some people as the notion of a “white” Harlem Cultural Festival. Just four years later, Columbia Pictures acquired distribution rights to the landmark festival film Wattstax, but that was in the aftermath of the Blaxploitation revolution—in fact, Columbia competitor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer blocked the release of Wattstax until a pair of Isaac Hayes performances of songs from MGM’s megahit Shaft were removed.

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Thus one of the great achievements of Summer of Soul isn’t just its emphasis on Black performers, but also Black audience members. (There are certainly plenty of white people in the crowd and onstage, but it’s a clear minority.) Summer of Soul is more than a document of Black musical performance—there’s surely no shortage of those from the ’60s era. It’s also an ode to Black musical fandom and Black musical pleasure. These are things that have for too long gone underchronicled and underrepresented, in our mythology of the ’60s and many of our musical histories more generally. One of the best things about Summer of Soul is its reminder that the joy of musical community is one of the great human experiences, a unifying truth in more ways than one.

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