The hippest party of the year arrives this weekend, when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut documentary, “Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” arrives in theaters and on Hulu Friday. You’re going to want to limber up because this concert doc will have you dancing from start to finish, even if it’s from the comfort of your living room.
In the summer of 1969, Woodstock changed the culture, and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. But something equally as significant was happening in Harlem, with the Harlem Cultural Festival concert series celebrating Black music, art and culture over the course of six Sundays at Mount Morris Park. Featuring performances from B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone, among others, the concerts were filmed for a potential TV special, and when no one was interested, the tapes sat forgotten in a basement for 50 years.
Thompson, known by his moniker Questlove, a member of The Roots and Jimmy Fallon’s house band, as well as a DJ, producer, raconteur and more, has rescued the footage for his glorious directorial debut, “Summer of Soul.” It’s a fantastic concert film filled with truly precious and rare moments of these iconic musicians, but “Summer of Soul” is so much more than just the music. Thompson contextualizes the moment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a time of Black pride and Black power, a cautious euphoria after the violence and bloodshed of 1968, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the protests and rioting that followed. The summer of ’68 was bloody, but the summer of ’69 was about freedom and radical change.
“Summer of Soul” is joyous, a celebration of the Black music and culture that has been so integral to the fabric of American life. You won’t want the film to end, but when it inevitably does, here’s a list of streaming documentaries that will help to fill the void, and perhaps offer some education on the history of soul music.
Along the lines of “Summer of Soul,” the 2018 documentary “Amazing Grace” is another rare find of lost footage. In 1972, director Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin’s performance of her live album taping at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. In 2007, Alan Elliott purchased the footage and finally was able to release the film 11 years later. Don’t miss this incredible performance from one of the greatest of all time. “Amazing Grace” is streaming on Hulu and Kanopy.
Another fantastic concert film is “Soul Power,” a 2008 film about the Zaire 74 music festival, which accompanied the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. With James Brown, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeda and Celia Cruz in the lineup, you won’t want to miss this. Rent it on all digital platforms for $2.99-$3.99.
One question that Thompson’s film poses (in the title itself) was the relationship of this event to television, but soul music and television did come together a few times over the years. The 2010 documentary “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” documents what a radical program “Soul Train” was in 1971, along with its host, the uber-cool Don Cornelius. That film is free to watch on YouTube. Before even “Soul Train,” there was “Mr. Soul,” Elliz Haizlip’s nationally broadcast all-Black variety show on public television in 1968. His daughter, Melissa Haizlip, directed the award-winning documentary “Mr. SOUL!” about her groundbreaking father, which is available to stream with a PBS membership or through the Alamo Drafthouse streaming platform for $12.
Hopefully these films and more will keep you moving and grooving throughout this entire summer of soul, because we all deserve some joy.
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