MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Summer of Soul (or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) - In Theaters, Streaming on Hulu
Documentary directed by Questlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson)
It was the summer of 1969. America was in the midst of the Vietnam War and reeling from the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. from assassin’s bullets.
It was also the summer in which the Woodstock Music Festival would proclaim “3 Days of Peace and Music” on Max Yasgur’s farm from August 15-18. While this event would announce the arrival of Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash onto the music scene, give us Jimi Hendrix’s take on The Star-Spangled Banner, and forever record for posterity what hippies sound like, the “peace” that the event promised was fleeting at best.
Earlier that summer (and largely forgotten), music promoter Tony Lawrence put on The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free outdoor concerts on Sunday afternoons at Mount Morris. The 3:00 p.m. programs were co-sponsored by Harlem Parks and Recreation and Maxwell House Coffee (with a coffee cup being part of the official logo). New York City was dealing with citywide racial tension. Mayor John Lindsey was a unifying presence of support but the NY City police department refused to provide protection. The Black Panthers stepped in to watch over the proceedings, with some of their security standing in tree branches.
The five-week-long festival (culminating in a beauty pageant on the sixth week) was advertised as a family-friendly event and featured a jaw-dropping roster of talent including B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mongo Santamaria, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and David Ruffin (formerly of The Temptations).
Although all of the concerts were professionally filmed by a multi-camera crew (and edited down for one hour public television specials), the films were stored and forgotten for over fifty years. Fortunately, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for The Roots and a lover of music history, has taken this archival footage and created Summer of Soul, one of the best music docs that I have ever seen. Not content to just show us the music, Questlove gathered together some of the principal musicians and audience members (some who were children in the crowd) to watch and comment on what it meant to be there at the time.
Summer of Soul reaches a place of deep spirituality during the gospel concert (a thematic choice for the July 13th show). The Edwin Hawkins Singers launch into “O Happy Day” (their Top 40 radio hit), which alone is cause for celebration. They are then followed by a set by The Staple Singers, featuring a young Mavis Staples sharing lead vocals with her father. Then something truly transcendent happens. As part of her program, Mahalia Jackson is planning to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, a personal favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. She turns to Mavis and tells her that she would like Mavis to lead her in and provide a foundation that she could build upon. Mavis is both honored and humbled by this request, wondering why someone of Jackson’ s stature would stoop to invite her in this fashion. Mavis begins the hymn beautifully, with Mahalia then joining her in song, singing each verse with mounting intensity, joined with instrumental call-and-response. It is true worship.
There are other highlights to come. Nina Simone would introduce her song of empowerment “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”. Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto would bring jazz and world music to the forefront. Stevie Wonder would begin to contemplate writing his own songs of significance.
Questlove wants the audience to ponder how one summer of music could keep hope alive during a time of turmoil and uncertainty. The Harlem Cultural Festival exceeded its modest expectations, providing not only an opportunity for the black community to come together to enjoy good music, but moment after moment of significant inspiration.
Summer of Soul is a gift to the world. Take two hours to open this lovely present.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: An inspiring recollection of the power of music to heal wounds and proclaim peace, love and understanding.
One pitchfork: Brief news footage of assassinations.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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