New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “SUMMER OF SOUL” IS THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE SUMMER

Original caricature by Jeff York of Nina Simone in the new documentary SUMMER OF SOUL (copyright 2021).

I know I’m late to the dance regarding my review of the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL, but I am here to sing, dance, and extoll its virtues as the feel-good movie of the summer. I was smiling the moment it started and when it ended, I wanted to see it all over again. 

For me, I had only a vague recollection of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival up until the announcement of this documentary. The six weeks of concert music that occurred in Harlem during the summer of 1969 were not something that got much attention in pop culture then or throughout the decades since. It certainly was eclipsed by the coverage of Woodstock, the other big music festival going on that summer. But now, the Harlem Fest is being given its due as some forty hours of footage, all but lost, were found and put together for this incredible remembrance.  

The documentary is an incredible celebration of music and the many artists performing that hot summer in NYC, but it’s also a shrewd film about the politics of the time. Much of the issues then are as prescient today, and the film demonstrates that by talking about how black artists matter, as well as how the African-American community was fighting for equality and political power then, and still is today. Indeed, the very fact that this once-in-a-lifetime event was filmed and yet never turned into a film or even a TV special somewhere along the way should be regarded as an outrage. 

But here it is to behold, finally, and it was well worth the wait. The doc covers the six weeks of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that was held at Mount Morris Park in Harlem and showcases dozens of artists during their time on the stage. Amongst the performers showcased at the event, and here in the doc, are Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight, and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, and Mahalia Jackson. 

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis of The Fifth Dimension are interviewed and it’s wonderful to see their sheer delight in recollecting it all so clearly. One of the very clever things that director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson did in making this doc is to film his subjects being interviewed while watching the lost footage. The joy, tears, and amazement that contribute to the reactions are infectious and give the film an incredible intimacy.

The clips of the concert will not only have you tapping your toes and wanting to sing along, but they introduce a host of songs that are not all that familiar to most audiences. Particularly memorable is the Nina Simone section where she sings some searing political songs, brashly pounding away at the piano keys, holding the audience spellbound.  

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are on hand to talk about the festival events they witnessed in ’69, and they frame it all in the context of the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Apollo moon landing that same summer. The spectators at the festival act nonplussed at the news of the moon landing – hard to care about the billions spent on space travel when the problems at home weren’t getting nearly the same attention. 

Still, the music dominates this uplifting 117-minute film, and what music it is. The wall-to-wall artistry on display is breathtaking and the festival was one extraordinary event, as is this documentary. Go see it. And then see it again.

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