By: Lana K. Wilson-Combs
“Summer of Soul,” (Or…, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised,”
is the fascinating music documentary from first time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
(TV’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”).
It’s a rousing celebration of black music that was showcased at the Harlem Cultural Festival at Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969. It was held the same year as Woodstock and the Summer of Soul concert is often affectionately referred to as “The Black Woodstock.”
The Summer of Soul event was free, and more than 300,000 people turned out for six weeks to experience music from an array of artists from Stevie Wonder, Sly and The Family Stone, Hugh Masekela, Gladys Knight & The Pips, David Ruffin, the Staple Singers and Max Roach, to Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King and so many others.
Although the Summer of Soul was filmed and documented by videographer Hal Tulchin—who died in 2017—the rare footage from the concert was apparently forgotten and for years sat in a basement untouched. Until now.
In addition to the amazing music, the documentary seamlessly blends some incredible archival footage from the civil rights movement and includes activists such as Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Al Sharpton, and others discussing how the turbulent political landscape at the time not only helped to transform the music and the musicians, but it also played a vital role in shaping and defining black culture.
There are so many inspiring moments in “Summer of Soul,” but I was particularly moved listening to Marilyn McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr, who were in the hitmaking group The 5th Dimension. They discussed how some people in and outside of the music industry claimed their sound/music wasn’t “black enough.” Yet they dominated the music charts throughout the 1960s with hits like “Up Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and of course "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
McCoo said that many people thought the group was white until they saw them perform or looked at their album cover. She says it bothered her that they became known as the black group with the white sound. She felt it was an unfair assessment and wondered “how do you color a sound?” McCoo and Davis added that performing in Harlem at the Summer of Soul Festival meant everything to them because they wanted to show people who they really were and what they were all about.
Well, the crowd showed its appreciation too for the group, and as McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. watched their performance, they were genuinely moved by the thunderous crowd response.
With “Summer of Soul,” Questlove has brought to life a huge slice of black music history that may have otherwise been erased. “Summer of Soul” ranks right up there with the outstanding music docs, “Wattstax,” “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” and “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”
It’s an absolute gem.
Be sure to catch my N2Entertainment.net movie talk segment on the Kitty O'Neal Show Fridays at 6:20 p.m. on radio station KFBK 93.1 FM and 1530 AM.
Watch This Trailer For "SUMMER OF SOUL"
Lana K. Wilson-Combs is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), The Black Film Critics Circle (BFCC), The American Film Institute (AFI), and a Nominating Committee Voting Member for the NAACP Image Awards.