“Summer of Soul:” Come for the music, stay for the conversation

Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures & Hulu | BB King at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

“Summer of Soul” highlights the changing of the guard in black music; from campy to cool.

Spring movie releases are few and far between, so let’s take a step back and highlight an important film from last year. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features unseen footage of the massive 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with interviews of attendants and the musicians themselves.

While there are many important topics discussed in this documentary, at its heart it is about a music festival and it does not disappoint. The talent at the festival is incredible, with performances from BB King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, a young Stevie Wonder and many other gifted performers. The music is playing almost constantly as director Questlove highlights as much of it as he could in the two-hour runtime. That alone makes this worthy of your attention.

Of course, these momentous events are never just about music. The festival is taking place at the end of a very turbulent decade and a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In many ways, the festival is about healing from that wound and it featured Jesse Jackson telling the crowd King’s last words followed by a performance of his favorite gospel song. It is a touching moment that is handled with care by Questlove.

One of the frustrating things about “Summer of Soul” is just how relevant the festival still is, which says a lot about why the footage of the festival was buried for so long. The film features old television interviews with some of the attendants and their statements about police violence, unnecessary wars, and interest in space travel instead of feeding and housing people that are all too applicable to our current reality. Questlove is able to build this narrative without forcing it on the audience.

However, these difficult topics do not define “Summer of Soul.” A lot of the film is just highlighting Black joy: people dancing, cooking, laughing and singing along with the artists. The statement moments about society come in bursts and at times you’ll just be watching incredible artists for minutes at a time with no voiceover. These music-focused moments are telling a story of their own by highlighting major shifts in Black music. The era of “cool” was beginning and it was being ushered in by “Sly and the Family Stone.” Women were no longer confined to just singing and dancing; Cynthia Robinson announced this in the most fitting form imaginable with a trumpet and Nina Simone hammered the point home with an incredible performance on the piano. It is in stark contrast to earlier parts of the documentary that focuses on Motown and gospel artists but shows the massive range of talent that the festival attracted.

“Summer of Soul” is an absolute joy to watch with impressive music and apt discussions of racism and state violence that flow seamlessly within the film. It is a documentary about a festival but so much more than that. It deserved its Oscar win and hopefully is just the beginning of Questlove’s career in film.

Star Rating: 4.5\5

[“Summer of Soul” is available to stream on Hulu and will be playing at The Grand Cinema on May 1st]  

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