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Taking you higher: A review of Summer of Soul (…or when the revolution could not be televised)

The opening of Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), screened by SUMO this past weekend, is a frenetic eruption of the documentary’s thesis statement. A sea of Black faces lights up as Stevie Wonder takes the stage, donning his signature sunglasses and encouraging the audience to clap along. Wonder sits at a drumset and begins playing his heart out. The brass follows suit, blowing with such fervor that you could have sworn the trumpets were breathing fire. You get quick cuts to the performers, the audience, political movements and statements of revolution, all underscored by the voices of their witnesses and the rhythm of Wonder’s drums. In this moment, Summer of Soul introduces itself as a triumphant celebration of Black music, culture and resistance. While the electricity of this opening isn’t sustained throughout, it tells its story with specificity and a deep reverence for voices unheard by history.

In 1969, singer and activist Tony Lawrence organized The Harlem Cultural Festival, a summerlong exhibition of Black musical talent. This documentary is truly the revolution which could not be televised, as director Questlove puts untouched footage of the event into the spotlight. We are treated to a smattering of live performances filmed up close and personal from a variety of genres. From Nina Simone’s jazz, to riffing from blues titan B.B. King and the psychedelic soul of Sly & The Family Stone (just to name a few), Summer of Soul gifts audiences with magnificent performances from each artist. It’s one thing to go to a concert to listen to music, but it’s another entirely to watch someone like Stevie Wonder work at such proximity. You get everything, the sweat and the soul, which, compounded with footage’s visual age, grants each musical interlude a simultaneously explosive and legendary quality. The documentary may be a Hulu original, but seeing it on the big screen enlarges its personality.

The film dances between these musical interludes and usual documentary fare. I enjoy that Summer of Soul gets a variety of voices in the conversation. Some of the artists are invited to reflect on the experience; others are modern celebrities, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris Rock, who weigh in on the significance of each artist on our modern culture. Most importantly, we get to hear from some of the festival goers themselves. They not only give us their stories, but Questlove also shows them the footage presumed to be lost to time. We see the images reflected in their eyes as they tell stories parallel to what’s on screen; we see each reaction to the memories which are unfolding in front of them.

Summer of Soul invites us to view The Harlem Cultural Festival as an event emblematic of this particular changing moment in Black American history. It not only explores the universality of music generally, but digs deeper into the way in which this set of concerts represents an intersection of Black identities. Between geographic roots, political approaches to resistance and  senses of style, Summer of Soul grants audiences an opportunity to witness individuals’ relationship to this music and each other with each cut to the crowd. We only hear from a few people who were actually there out of the 50,000 in attendance; there’s another world in which Summer of Soul was a docu series instead. Nonetheless, by placing a microscope on this event, we see the ways in which the ground was shifting underneath the lives of Black people in America. In the wake of deaths of their leaders, resistance takes on new shapes. The very concept of Blackness becomes synonymous with beauty, detached from connotation as an opposite to purity as whites have conceived it; we hear from Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the journalist who pressured The New York Times to use Black in their publications. Music is, in itself, a form of resistance, as a fashion of celebrating Black pride and beauty.

Summer of Soul’s structure tells a clear story and provides enough perspectives and information to warrant its creation as a documentary rather than a restoration of the footage. There are moments where Summer of Soul’s pacing drags a wee bit, but those music sections are unbeatable. My only other complaint is the implication that there was a stand-up comedy element within the festival that isn’t thoroughly explored (especially considering that Chris Rock was brought on as well), which I would have enjoyed personally.

Summer of Soul likewise engages with the near impossibility of its existence. There’s also another world in which all of this footage remained in a basement never to be seen. There’s a palpable frustration with the erasure of Black history and the documentary skillfully balances its generative musical energy with its human subjects’ reflections on the changing times. The Harlem Cultural Festival occurred at the same time as Woodstock, and even when branded as a “Black Woodstock,” the footage wouldn’t sell. There’s also a great moment in which we see reactions to the moon landing, which occurred during this time as well.

When asked if they were excited, many Black people interviewed answered that the money from the project should have been allocated to feeding and housing the thousands of impoverished people in America. This historical overshadowing is something Summer of Soul attempts to cut through with the glimmering story it sets out to tell. But it begs the question: what other pieces of Black art and history like The Harlem Cultural Festival have been buried and erased over time? Many people’s stories go untold, and we’re lucky enough to have this on film at all! Still, Summer of Soul does such marvelous work here, and even if it’s wholly impossible to encapsulate all 50,000 individual narratives that made The Harlem Cultural Festival, it still provides a well-crafted, comprehensive picture. Rather than getting lost in the pathos of erasure, Summer of Soul inspires us to start digging for more of what has been lost.

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