Summer of Soul

Sly Stone at Harlem Cultural Festival 1969

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a critically lauded, academy award-nominated, music documentary and directorial debut of The Roots’ drummer and Tonight Show music director Questlove (Ahmir Thompson). It documents the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem which was held on Sundays between June 29 to August 24 during the summer of 1969.

As a musician and music lover, I am always attracted to music documentaries, nevertheless, I am usually disappointed in their execution and this film is no exception. Music documentaries are almost never primarily about the music because filmmakers believe that they must have a narrative arc and place the music in a specific context.

The premise of the movie seems to be that this festival was the black Woodstock, and it was ignored by history due to racism. A more benign explanation would be that by 1969 music festivals were commonplace. At least three major feature films had already been released about such festivals, Jazz on A Summer’s Day (1959) a decade previously, documented the Newport Jazz Festival, Murray Lerner’s Festival, shot at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1966, was an Oscar nominee in 1968, both featured many black artists, and Monterey Pop (1968) chronicled the first large rock music festival in the US. During 1969, there were other large festivals that went undocumented and unnoticed by national news such as the Atlanta International Pop Festival on July fourth weekend with approximately 150,000 in attendance, Texas International Pop Festival on Labor Day weekend also with estimates as high as 150,000 attendees. Some of the acts featured in Summer of Soul – The Staple Singers, B.B. King, Herbie Mann, Sly and the Family Stone – performed at these festivals. Sly and the Family Stone also performed at Woodstock along with a few other black acts such as Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, and interracial groups The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Santana, and Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band.

The Schaefer Music Festival, held in New York’s Central Park, was similar in attendance and weekly frequency to the Harlem festival. In 1969, Schaefer hosted Mongo Santamaria, Hugh Masekela, Herbie Mann, Nina Simone, B.B. King, The Chambers Brothers, Ray Barretto, Sly and the Family Stone, among other top Jazz, Blues, Latin, and Soul music artists like Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader, John Lee Hooker, Sam & Dave, and Pattie LaBelle. There were also white folk, rock, and pop acts such as Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell Neil Young. I don’t know of any footage from these concerts ever being shown on television or in a concert film.

Why Was Woodstock Different?

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place over three days and had a peak attendance of between 450,000 to 500,000. The New York State Thruway had to be closed because of the traffic and the talent had to be airlifted by Stewart Air Force Base personnel into the site. The Governor considered calling in the National Guard to preserve order. This was the first time something like this had happened. Clearly, the scale was larger than a weekly concert with 50,000 people or a total of 300,000 over six separate concerts over six weeks.

Moreover, Woodstock was planned as a movie and soundtrack album in addition to a concert event, with money and buy-in from Warner Bros. And that was a good thing because only 186,000 tickets were sold before it unexpectedly became a free concert. Woodstock, the concert, was a money loser. The footage that became Summer of Soul was videotaped (not filmed) to be sold to television stations. The movie seems to gloss over the fact that it did become two one-hour TV specials broadcast on major networks (ABC and CBS) in July and September of 1969. It was not conceived as a motion picture or a soundtrack album. Finally, after Woodstock, even larger concerts with white bands, like the largest rock festival, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973 with an attendance of 600,000 were ignored. While, also in 1973, the film Wattstax covered the 1972 Watts Summer Festival performances by Stax Records soul music artists.  Therefore, I don’t believe that bias was the main reason that this festival was not featured on national news or the subject of a feature film.

But, What About the Music?

The music is wonderful, but… Questlove is a musician and as such he should have good instincts about making a music documentary. Yet, as a first-time filmmaker, he may have sought advice or opinions from others about the documentary-making process. I read an interview with one of the editors on this project, Joshua L. Pearson, which underscores what I hate about these so-called music documentaries. He said, “There’s a great little scene about how fashion was changing. It’s a very dialogue-heavy scene because it’s all talk about fashion. I just chose to use a jazz track because there’s no lyrics that are going to get in the way, and it also conveniently was Mongo Santamaria’s version of the Herbie Hancock song, “Watermelon Man.” So, there’s very little of that song in there. It’s a great song, but unless you’re a huge jazz fan, it gets a little repetitive after a while. It seemed to be the perfect song to put under a big chunk of dialogue and then let the end play out. That’s when Lin Miranda comes in and says, “That was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man.’”

So, it is more important to focus on 1970s fashion and bring in a celebrity, Lin Manuel Miranda, who had nothing to do with the concert, than to have that boring music get in the way.

This is one of the problems I have with this movie. It can’t decide whether it wants to focus on the Harlem Cultural Festival and what it meant to that community or whether it wants to rehash 1960s history for those who are ignorant about the events of that time – the assassinations (the Kennedy’s, King) the space program, Black Panthers, etc. If I wanted to learn about 1960s history this is not the first film that I would watch. Also, there is no follow-up concerning the current state of the neighborhood which has been heavily gentrified.

The film begins with Stevie Wonder playing a drum solo. I assume this choice was made by Questlove because he is a drummer. I’ve seen Stevie do his drum solo live and it was great, but it was not the most important part of the concert. Next, is the subjugation of the music to the narrative arc. Editor Joshua L. Pearson describes it thusly, “We wanted to have the arc of this movie be the change that occurred that year. … You go from Stevie on the drums to The Chambers Brothers doing very late sixties funk to B.B. King doing the old traditional blues.” Except, this arc is ahistorical. Stevie was just nineteen and would progress to much greater career heights, the Chambers Brothers were a gospel singing group who had performed at the Newport Folk Festival and had only recently discovered electric rock music. The only funk band here is Sly and the Family Stone and the camera crew is unaware of funk which would explain why they avoid focusing on Larry Graham the originator of slap bass. And, B.B. King, far from playing the “old traditional blues,” like some unsophisticated sharecropper, was headlining at rock concert halls like the Fillmore with bands like Led Zeppelin and appearing on national television playing his 1969 hit The Thrill Is Gone (recorded with top NYC session players, not exactly old-timey). B.B. gets only two minutes of time in the movie and soundtrack.

This revolution that could not be televised (but somehow was) gave much more time to artists who were very welcome for example on the Ed Sullivan show, namely The Fifth Dimension, David Ruffin of the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and even Sly and the Family Stone. There actually was a special on Mahalia Jackson on ABC that year.  But, the jazz acts, who were so easy to talk over, like Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela were more likely to be invisible on TV in 1969. The next year Rahsaan Roland Kirk would lead protests on the Dick Cavett Show and Ed Sullivan Show to bring attention to the dearth of representation of jazz artists on TV.

Much was made about the Fifth Dimension showing their bona fides to the black community. Yes, young black people (just like young white people) had firm opinions on what was hip and mainstream groups with hits like Up, Up, and Away weren’t where it was at. Gospel music had its own weekend as did Jazz and B.B. represented blues. It also would be a few years before many would appreciate that hippie stuff that Sly was pointing to like Jimi Hendrix or Funkadelic.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed this movie and think Questlove did a great job working within the constraints of current culture. It was great to see the restored footage. Nevertheless, the sound was uneven at times; possibly a creative decision, to make it seem as if you were there. I say this because the sound is better on the soundtrack recording. All the performances were excellent and deserve to be seen by a wide audience. Highlights for me included the Chambers Brothers, Nina Simone, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone. I also loved that Sonny Sharrock guitar solo that was played out of context – would have loved to hear the whole song. But, with forty hours of footage to choose from why was so much time wasted with talking-head interviews and unrelated stock footage? Well, at least Bono didn’t show up, as he has in many music documentaries which he had only a tenuous connection to the subject.

In spite of the shortcomings common to most music documentaries, I count this as a must-see. Now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

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