Just in time for the cancellation of Van Morrison, a music documentary arrives to snatch the title of Greatest Concert Movie from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. So could everyone from 1976 please clear the stage except for the Staple Singers, who appropriately hold the two pictures together.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) broadcasts for the first time the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, held concurrently with Woodstock but locked away for reasons that are quite literally black and white. Questlove’s directorial debut explores this most blatant erasure of black history and shines a marvellous light on the organisers, attendees and stars who made the festival such a powerful statement of empowerment and identity.
The concerts featured so many great artists that it is easier to list those who were not there: Aretha Franklin. Fortunately we have Amazing Grace to make up for that. The lineup covers every genre from jazz (Nina Simone) and blues (BB King) to funk (Stevie Wonder) and soul (David Ruffin) – sometimes all in the same song, as in the case of Sly and the Family Stone – as well as pop (The 5th Dimension), Afro-Cuban (Ray Barretto) and gospel (Mahalia Jackson). “Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America,” says civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
All give incredible, incendiary performances, edited to social commentary that ricochets like a rimshot into the present day. Interviews with the crowd reveal their indifference to the contemporaneous Moon landing, their concerns about terrestrial poverty amplified the week in which billionaire Jeff Bezos launched his ego into space. Questlove shows the Harlem community’s unshakeable pride in the face of terror and persecution (the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X loomed large), and a broader awakening of black consciousness.
A celebration of black music and the freedom it represents, Summer of Soul is pure brilliance; unbridled in its scope and sound and crackling with love, protest and enough funky breakbeats to melt your face, or at least make it leak. Much too late and right on time, it is a film to stir the soul, shake the mind and seize the body.