Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

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July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.