2021, Movies

Summer of Soul (2021, Questlove)

I have been reading about popular music history since almost before I can remember. Before I had the internet, I had a Billboard book that I read and re-read for some reason. And, once I had the internet, and AllMusic, among other websites, I read everything I could about every artist and genre I had any interest in (and a few I didn’t). And yet, like so many other people, I had no idea this festival happened.

It’s a rather incredible thing, that the Harlem Cultural Festival was so underknown. And yes, so much of that is because of structural racism in the United States. But some of it also just seems to be luck and its nature. Unlike Woodstock or its predecessors and successors, this wasn’t just one weekend, nor was it just one summer. (This film is about the third edition of the festival, the biggest in terms of artists and, I presume, attendance.) The festival was in a park in the most famous African American neighbourhood in the United States. One of the weekends of this particular summer was in direct competition with Woodstock. Moreover, some of the days had decidedly esoteric lineups. Though Newport was a really big deal, I don’t know how many gospel festivals could have been a wide popular success. Would you have wandered into a strange neighbourhood in 1969 in the United States to see a bunch of gospel acts?

Anyway, the film show highlights from some of the weekends in that third summer, and intersperses commentary from people involved in putting on the show, attendees, and a couple of performers. Some of the performances are great, some of them aren’t so great. But, on the whole, the experience is really illuminating. Something like this needs context and the film provides plenty, but that context rarely overwhelms the music, which is the main point.

A quick read of Wikipedia will tell you the festival wasn’t quite as forgotten as the film makes out, at least initially. There were two brief TV specials for this edition and there had been at least one for a previous summer’s (though that one was on PBS…). But, given the nature of broadcast TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, once those specials aired and were never aired again, it was almost like they were never aired in the first place. Moreover, one has to assume that these TV specials were nothing like Woodstock both in length and in production values.

So, for everyone who wasn’t there, or didn’t learn about it from people who were there, it is almost like this was forgotten. And that’s just crazy. It is a testament to mainstream America’s general lack of interest in anything “too black” that this edition of the festival, and its footage, was basically lost to history.

So I’m glad this film exists.


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