The must-see music documentary of the year
On Friday night, March 4, at Theatre Calypso, be blown away by the crushing images and sounds of Summer of Soul, the forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival aka ‘Black Woodstock’. That’s as close as you’ll get to a great concert. And you can bet that you won’t sit still? Musician and debut director Questlove brilliantly brings never-before-seen footage to life in this energetic and swinging docu. Sitting still is impossible. Reserve your ticket (€9) through theater Calypso.
Chances are that you do have the legendary festival Woodstock knows, but has never heard of it Harlem Cultural Festival Sin! This historic event took place in the same summer of 1969 in New York’s Mount Morris Park less than 160 kilometers from Woodstock. The festival consisted of a series of six free concerts and attracted a total of over 300,000 visitors and performances by musical greats such as B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone and a still very young Stevie Wonder. But no one wanted the recordings, not even under the banner of “Black Woodstock. And so over forty hours of legendary and swinging material ended up in the basement of one of the organizers. How tragic.
Fortunately, film producers are stumbling Jon Kamen and Dave Sirulnick (Hamilton, American Utopia) almost fifty years later by chance on the footage when they are working on a film about Nina Simone. Sirulnick and Kamen approach following the versatile musician and drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson (The Roots, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse). Would he please, with his enormous musical knowledge, take on the task of directing a documentary about the festival? The drummer is so impressed by the recordings that he modestly asks whether this important black-American musical and cultural history would not be better brought to Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay could. But Kamen and Sirulnick manage to convince Questlove to direct Summer of Soul. It turns out to be a golden move.
Summer of Soul is a super-swinging, energetic and moving account of not only the best black artists of the era, but also of an event entirely dedicated to black culture. It is a celebration of black music, fashion, subcultures and community spirit, just one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. A time when new generations of black Americans were demanding change and improvement. And in which music is not only a healing, but also an uplifting and motivating force.
Questlove alternates the unparalleled performances with stories from the attendees. In some cases, the artists themselves are speaking, but you mostly get anecdotes from the festival attendees. Beautiful, personal stories that clarify the context of the event and thus highlight the historical importance of the Harlem Cultural Festival. This was not just any festival. This was a unique moment to shine. To treat disadvantaged people to a carefree getaway and instill pride and self-esteem in them. And to blow them away musically.
Summer of Soul lasts two hours, but swings past you at such a rapid pace that after the credits roll you long for more. Fortunately, the performances are seen in all their glory and the rousing sounds and narration drive the docu wonderfully. Questlove’s excellent sense of timing and rhythm no doubt added to the editing.