“Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)”



1969 was the year of the most famous music festival. But we now know that 100 miles south, over the course of six weeks a once-forgotten music festival was also a pivotal moment.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), but the tapes lay dormant for half a century.

“Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)” is the debut Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson as a filmmaker. Granted, he had marvelous stage footage with which to work, but his deft touch interweaving contemporary news footage and latter day recollections results in a fully satisfying film. The documentary has already won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival, with more accolades likely to follow.

The film opens with Stevie Wonder, who not only shows his prowess as a drummer, but is also seen at the point of re-positioning his career from deft architect of Top 10 hits to a deeper, self-contained prodigy.

The next music segment is from The Chambers Brothers, appropriately assaying “Uptown.”  The interracial band were a long way from their home in Missisissippi. I expect ther huge hit “Time Has Come Today” was sadly left on the cutting room floor. Also from the Mississippi Delta, B.B. King ripped through a scorching blues number.

We watch the 5th Dimension watch themselves cheerfully perform and clarify their true heritage; the band was perceived as too white in its heyday.

A procession of powerful gospel performers is led by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, with their wonderful and seemingly improbable hit “Oh Happy Day.”

“We were persecuted by our church for the success of the song,” observed one choir member. “But we thought the world needed a song like that.” Amen.

Mavis Staples evokes the excitement of being on the stage with Pops and her sisters. It is not a long reach to understand how Van Morrison became enamored of her and the Staples Singers.

The social consciousness permeated the Festival, especially during the gospel segment. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples deliver a torching version of “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” MLK’s favorite hymn.

David Ruffin must have been watching the pair from the side of the stage. He had just left The Temptations, and he brought some gospel soul to the decidedly secular “My Girl.” Gladys Knight was tremendous, and The Pips were aerobic with their smoothest of moves.

Sly and the Family Stone exploded out of Woodstock that summer, and likewise in Harlem. They rewrote the rules in many ways, not the least of which was their co-ed and integrated lineup. The thread from gospel to Sly’s hits “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher” is not very long.

The simultaneous moon landing was met with a degree of appreciation and indifference, reiterating the eternal question ‘if we can get to the moon, why can’t we fix the ghetto.’

If 1969 was the year Stevie Wonder shifted from brilliant pop hits to deeply influential melodic excursions, it was also the year that Negro was replaced with Black as the operative nomenclature.

Into the festival mix also were Hugh Masekela, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Ray Baretto, Nina Simone, Mongo Santamaria…each exploring and testifying to the depth and breadth of their musical inspiration.

One observer succinctly captured the moment: “The concert was like a rose coming through cement.”

Trailer available here.

Released theatrically by Searchlight Pictures and streaming on Hulu.






Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.