Pretty much from its first moment to last, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul,” a film chronicling six magical Sundays of stirring soul music holding forth as the “Harlem Cultural Festival” at Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park in 1969, shows why it’s been a summer-long rage since its July debut streaming on Hulu and in theaters nationwide.
Thompson distilled some 40 hours of meticulously crafted footage shot by a four-camera crew led by the late Hal Tulchin into a 117-minute documentary that includes a laundry list of the greatest soul and gospel acts of the era. It all kicks off with 19-year-old Stevie Wonder playing drums and singing under a light rain in the film’s opening minutes as crew members follow him around the stage with an umbrella. (Did you know Stevie Wonder played drums? I didn’t…)
Things never stop moving from there as the Chambers Brothers, Sly & the Family Stone, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the recently solo’d Temptations leader David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone and more grace the stage looking out at what one among multiple voiceover commentators describe as “a sea of black people.”
That sea totaled some 300,000 from the late June through early August weekly productions, but that’s just tip-of-the-iceberg compared to the millions of lucky souls who now get to view this cultural treasure as it streams across the world, courtesy of Thompson and his producers exhuming the footage in a finally successful effort to rescue it for posterity after it had sat unwanted for nearly half a century.
The whole movie is a thrill and smile-fest for anyone either alive then or alive to the talent and significance of these acts in modern music history, all set against the historical backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to which music has always been indelibly wed.
The story is all the sweeter for how long it was ignored, victimized partly by the festival occurring in the same summer as the shorter, more epically scaled Woodstock Festival upstate. Then there were the television networks, to whom cinematographer Tulchin pitched the footage as “the Black Woodstock,” deciding that an all-black festival set in Harlem lacked commercial appeal. This remains a totally confounding position, given how deeply the tentacles of soul, blues and gospel music had reached into white culture by 1969.
We were not alone in recognizing the potency and verve of soul music. Of course there would have been plentiful interest and a market for more of that; it was then and remains crazy to think otherwise.
As a recent graduate that summer from a nearly all white Los Angeles high school, I have only to remember how huge soul music was throughout that era. The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, et al, reigned supreme at every school dance, caused otherwise reserved white boys to break into David Ruffin or Levi Stubbs imitations while noshing cinnamon buns at recess, and blared from every car radio as we made our way to the beach.
Surely we were not alone in recognizing the potency and verve of soul music. Of course there would have been plentiful interest and a market for more of that; it was crazy to think otherwise.
That’s especially so given the production values Tulchin brought to bear on the project, which he did totally on spec, confident he’d get his investment of time and money back soon enough. Thankfully, he was actively engaged with producer Robert Fyvolent and Thompson as they bought rights to the film and got the project underway before Tulchin’s death in 2017.
Many arresting moments await the attentive viewer (in addition to Little Stevie’s drum work).
Sly Stone before his long decline began, just tearing it up with “Sing a Simple Song” early in the film, then bringing it home near the end with an unrelenting “Higher! Higher! Higher!” rendition of “I Want to Take You Higher.”
Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension, still resplendent at 75, lamenting that the group was “constantly being attacked because we weren’t, quote-unquote, ‘black enough.'” She fights back tears as she watches footage of the group’s performance, bright yellow, orange and red garments ablaze in the sun as they sing “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the black audience appearing only enchanted.
“How do you color a sound?” she asks, not expecting an answer.
The volcanic and ever defiant Simone, up to here with the continued oppression of her people—and not prepared to accept it for another minute. “Are you ready?” she chants. “Are you ready to listen to all the beautiful black voices, the beautiful black feelings, the beautiful black waves moving in beautiful air? Are you ready, black people? Are you ready?”
A few more “Readys” on, she wants to know if her audience is also ready to “burn buildings” and “kill, if you have to.” The enthusiastic but resoundingly peaceful audience apparently did not take her literally.
And to close here so you’ll have plenty of time to see the movie later on if you haven’t already, the sight of Mahalia Jackson, just 58 but looking older, so much towering history in her presence, sweating, squinting, missing a tooth, feeling her way through Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which she sang at his funeral per his request.
She begins the song, but buckling under the effort in the heat of the day, hands the microphone over to the nearby young Mavis Staples, plentiful symbology in that “handoff,” before collecting herself and coming back to finish it as a blowing-it-out duet.
It’s all there in Jackson’s expressiveness: all the pain, all the patience, all the torment and loss and hardship and devotion—and all the dignity with which she had met every moment of it. It’s an arresting few minutes of an utterly absorbing film of an all-important era of American history, with its reverberations pounding loudly and insistently to this very day.
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Thanks Andrew, a luminous documentary that most certainly lifts the soul. Loved seeing the 19 yr old “Little Stevie Wonder” as his hands rhythmically fly across keyboards… brings back fond memories of seeing him a few years earlier at the Seattle Center one summer—primarily playing drums like a black Keith Moon! For all of our human foibles tied to race, music has long provided a context in which skin color evaporates in the pulsing celebration of song. This scintillating documentary is a testament to the uplifting power of music—or as Sly repeatedly said, “let me take you higher”!!
Exactly, Kevin. One of my many fave parts in this movie is Sly trotting a few white bandmates out there, causing many variations on the question, “Yo Sly, what’re white dudes doing in your band?” What they were doing was playing hella drums & saxophones, among other things, while breaking their own kind of color barrier. Good for the music, and good for the world, I think.
Great post! And fantastic documentary — why didn’t we all know this was going on in S ’69 until now? Better late than never, I guess.
Susan, this was my takeaway as well! Even as a white boy in Eagle Rock, I loved Sly and the FAMILY Stone, Otis Redding, the Temps and the 4 Tops! Cannot believe this was not covered or publicized at the time.
As Susan suggests, Jim, I’m just happy it got covered now. One shudders to think what else might be stuffed in attics or basements around the world—or worse yet, was never recorded at all but should have been!
Hi Susan, I think an easy answer is that it was simple racism that caused this to be suppressed, but things are often more complicated than easy answers suggest. It had the misfortune of going up against Woodstock, for which there had been well-laid plans, plenty of financing, and took place over one long weekend that blew past all attendance and trippiness expectations. In contrast, the Harlem festival spanned six Sundays, was shot by a much smaller crew with the lead guy doing it strictly on spec and then trying to peddle it to various TV stations after they’d had one-hour recaps on NY TV following each of the six segments. As I wrote, the guys Pulchin pitched with the footage, if they even did much looking at all, were obviously wrong thinking it had no commercial appeal, but once that happened the whole cache of film basically got stuffed into storage and forgotten, so much so that Questlove, quite a man about town with connections and contacts up to his neck, was embarrassed he’d never even heard of its existence until just a few years ago, though he quickly realized what he had and got to work. And thank the gods for that—helluva directorial debut from a supreme talent!
I’m not satisfied with my answer above, for the very reason that things are always more complicated than they appear! Of course the long legacy of racism would have impacted the very possibility of Pulchin securing financing and sponsorships for his festival, especially given that his was essentially a one-man venture. Harlem was vibrant but still struggling and not a wealthy area back then, and the roots of that reality itself are sunk deep in the darkest parts of American history.
In any case, Woodstock, in contrast, was put together by four men who weren’t artists like Pulchin but entrepreneurs, looking to make a buck and promote a sound studio they wanted to build in the area. Two of them had the personal finances to invest, though they also came to near financial ruin once the festival became “free,” and were saved only by the crazy success of the movie a year later. The festival and its planning in the months leading up to it was not without its chaotic elements, lord knows, but that itself became a key narrative element within the film, giving it much of its head-shaking, feel-good charm. The good news is we now have two iconic works depicting a remarkable era of music and its influence upon and reflection of history.
Frank Casey and I traveled across country in 1969. We hit Vegas, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Illinois (my birthplace), New Orleans, Florida and then up the Eastern seaboard and Connecticut, our final destination and my parents’ home. The night prior to our drive into CT, we stopped at Washington Square (NYC) around midnight. An unbelievable musical event occurred there. Stevie Wonder was performing a solo, both song and harmonica, and those of us (maybe 2 dozen), who were lucky to be at the right place at the right time, shared a wonderful, lifetime memory.
Whoa, that sounds like a doozie. Any idea what the date more or less might’ve been? I’m thinking Stevie was in town for the concert in this movie, and the gig you saw may well have been his warmup (or warmdown!).
August 22nd, 1969
I wrote this the day following our private concert.
At midnight, music penetrated the quiet around Washington Square. Frank and I noticed a familiar face, Stevie Wonder, jamming with others on his harmonica, a sight neither of us will ever forget.
My wife Dawn grew up in Detroit. I mean, in Detroit city. Her proximity and fondness for all things Motown drew her close to the soul music of the sixties. I too am from that mostly-white LA high school that Andrew and others allude to on this post. Detroit and LA saw the film together this summer as 70 year-olds and neither of us could fathom how this incredible soul-festival(s) remained unknown and untouched for these many years. Spence and Frank in Washington Square with Stevie Wonder is a tale for the ages. Thanks for inspiring the memories and for your insights on this film Drew.
Jay, I’ve noticed a distressing trend in the probably last 10 weddings I’ve attended in recent years—the young DJs never play Motown. Such a travesty. And every time, I march up to the guy and politely ask, “Can you please play some Motown?” I always get an affirmative nod, then go back to my table…and never get any Motown.
Kids these days…