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Summer of Soul

"colourful, candid and compelling"

★★★★★ - STUFF 

-  1969's forgotten music festival now an unmissable documentary - 

Attracting almost the same number of attendees and arguably a bigger roster of talent as Woodstock, it’s the summer of ‘69 music festival you’ve probably never heard of.

Held over six weekends, the third Harlem Cultural Festival at New York’s Mount Morris Park was the hottest ticket in town, as everyone from Stevie Wonder, Sly and The Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers and Gladys Knight and the Pips took to the stage.

Playing out amidst a party atmosphere, with security provided by the Black Panthers, partly because of the community’s distrust of the police, it was a celebration and a chance for the city’s Black and brown communities to forget their troubles and come together for a cultural celebration. With locals able to sell everything from food,to headbands and balloons, this “ultimate Black barbecue” smelt of “Afrosheen and chicken,” as one concertgoer vividly remembers in acclaimed drummer-turned-director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s astounding and enlightening debut feature. 

Subtitled Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be TelevisedSummer of Soul mixes new interviews with performers, organisers, locals and historians, with archival news reports and extensive, sometimes jaw-dropping, footage of the concerts themselves.

Put together by musician and entrepreneur Tony Lawrence (“a hustler in the best sense”), the whole cultural festival project was built on half-commitments from artists who were worried they might not be paid. But Lawrence, who also MC’d and even performed himself, not only managed to persuade New York and its “blue-eyed soul brother” of a mayor John Lindsay to support it, but obtained sponsorship from coffee empire Maxwell House.

Television cameras were on hand to capture the event, but despite 40 hours of footage being recorded, it simply sat in a basement for five decades, until recently unearthed by Questlove and his team.

What they found and share here is a fascinating time capsule, a moment when a new era of music was being ushered in and people whose culture and freedom of expression had been suppressed – and who had witnessed a number of their leaders be publicly killed – found their voice.

You’ll see Stevie Wonder playing the drums, Marvis Staples’ heartfelt performance of Precious Lord and Age of Aquarius (the year’s biggest single in America) hit-makers The Fifth Dimension prove that they only “sounded white”.

The only thing more compelling than the performances, are interviews with those who were there, ones carried out both then and now. It’s fascinating to hear Harlem locals describe the Moon Landing (which happened in the middle of the concert series) as a waste of money when children were going hungry (“It’s groovy for certain people, but not for Black America,” one man says) and how 1969 was the year the word Negro was replaced by Black in publications like The New York Times.

Other aspects covered include the growing opposition towards the Vietnam War, the importance of gospel as an outlet for emotional expression and how music was the universal language that brought the cultural melting pot of this area of the Big Apple together.

If you enjoyed In the Heights and lapped up Apple TV+’s excellent series on 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this colourful, candid and compelling look at a musical and cultural celebration held during a truly turbulent time in America’s history.

It should not have taken more than half-a-century for these images to find a global audience, but through some skilful and sharp editing, smart context and savvy interview selection, Questlove has transformed and elevated it into something that’s not only an important historic document, but that will truly resonate with modern audiences. 

- James Croot, STUFF 

Summer Of Soul is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba! 

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