Review: ‘Elvis’ (2022), starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks

June 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Austin Butler in “Elvis” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Elvis” (2022)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1946 to 1977, in various parts of the United States and briefly in Germany, the dramatic film “Elvis” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of superstar entertainer Elvis Presley.

Culture Clash: Presley had many personal battles in his life, including those related to racial segregation, his drug addiction, his doomed marriage to Priscilla Presley and his troubled relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Elvis Presley fans, “Elvis” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and music biopics that go big on spectacle-like filmmaking.

Austin Butler, Helen Thomson, Tom Hanks and Richard Roxburgh in “Elvis” (Photo by Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The vibrant biopic “Elvis” continues filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s pattern of making a protagonist’s life story look like a manic-energy carnival. The musical numbers are fantastic, but viewers should expect a very glossy version of Elvis Presley’s life. Luhrmann directed and co-wrote “Elvis,” and he is one of the movie’s producers. People who are familiar with Luhrmann’s previous movies (including 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby”) will already know that he isn’t a filmmaker known for being miniminalist or showing restraint.

Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” just like Elvis Presley, is a mass of contradictions but can be counted on to deliver spectacular performances on stage. Even with a total running time of 159 minutes, “Elvis” leaves out or fast-forwards through many important aspects of Presley’s life. But other parts of the movie drag with repetition and linger too long in scenes where the story should have already moved on to something else. Luhrmann co-wrote the “Elvis” screenplay with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. The movie was filmed in Luhrmann’s native Australia.

At times, this “Elvis” movie looks like a lengthy music video, with enough quick cuts to give some viewers the cinematic version of whiplash. Other times, “Elvis” attempts to get into the more serious and emotionally complex areas of Presley’s life before zipping off into one of several whirling-dervish montages that fill up this movie. It’s a change of pace and tone that might be off-putting to some viewers who are looking for a more conventional way of telling the story.

For example, the courtship and marriage of Elvis and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) are very rushed into the story and aren’t given a lot of depth. The movie leaves out the fact that in real life, when Elvis began dating Priscilla in 1959, she was 14 and he was 24. They met when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, where Priscilla’s U.S. Air Force stepfather was also stationed at the time.

In real life, Elvis also convinced Priscilla’s parents to let her move in with him when she was still an underage teen. It’s probably not a coincidence that Priscilla is portrayed by an actress who never looks underage. That’s because bringing up possible stautory rape in connection to Elvis would ruin the movie’s intention to make him look like a superstar who was exploited by a greedy and corrupt manager.

Sometimes, the actors give performances that look like impersonations, while in other scenes, the actors seem to truly embody their characters. This dictonomy is especially true for Austin Butler (who portrays the adult Elvis Presley) and Tom Hanks (who plays manager Colonel Tom Parker), whose love/hate business partnership is the movie’s central conflict. Their best scenes are those where they look the most natural and don’t try to overdo the “larger than life” aspects of their respective characters’ personalities.

Butler’s performance is much better in the scenes depicting Elvis in the last 10 years of his life, when Elvis’ health was on a steady decline due to his drug addiction. (Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of 42.) In the scenes of Elvis’ adult years before he became famous and during his fame from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, Butler just looks like he’s doing a competent Elvis impersonation. The movie starts to improve considerably when Butler shows more emotional depth as the sweaty, “hooked on drugs” version of Elvis, because it’s a portrayal of man who’s on a downward spiral but still desperately trying to stay on top.

Elvis’ controlling manager Parker, whose real name was Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kuijk, was born in the Netherlands, but he pretended for years that he was born and raised in the United States. In real life, Parker (who died in 1997, at the age of 87) hid his true identity and undocumented immigrant status. This deception is in the movie, but as a plot twist reveal that will not surprise anyone who knows about Parker, or anyone who notices Hanks’ very over-the-top European accent in the movie. There are parts of the movie where Hanks’ prosthetic makeup and his Dutch-like accent are very distracting. Hanks’ accent also sometimes sounds German and sometimes sounds like a Western European trying to sound American.

In real life, when Parker was Elvis’ manager, Parker did not have a heavy European accent, as portrayed in this movie. Parker had a very believable American accent in real life. How else would he have been able to fool so many people into thinking that he was a born-and-raised American if he had a European accent? This quasi-European accent is one of the characteristics of Parker that this “Elvis” movie gets wrong.

Because so much of Elvis’ life has already been dissected and depicted in many other ways (including Elvis impersonators becoming both a cottage industry and the butt of a lot of jokes), Luhrmann’s “Elvis” at least takes a unique approach of telling this story with narration from Parker. The movie’s opening scene shows Parker collapsing from a heart attack and taken to a hospital. During this narration, Parker repeatedly says versions of this statement: “Without me, there would be no Elvis Presley. And yet, there are some who would make me the villain of this here story.”

Elvis’ childhood gets a comic-book panel treatment (literally) in this “Elvis” movie, as the movie uses comic book panels and comic-book-type illustrations to show chapter transitions in Elvis’ youth. Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aaron Presley is portrayed as someone who was influenced from an early age by music, particularly R&B and gospel music. Elvis had a twin brother named Jessie Garon Presley, who was stillborn. The film briefly mentions the death of Elvis’ twin brother, but the movie does not explore (as other biographies have done) how Elvis was haunted by this death.

Elvis was famously a “mama’s boy” who worshipped his mother Gladys (played by Helen Thomson), who was a strong-willed and dominant force in his life. Elvis’ father Vernon (played by Richard Roxburgh) is portrayed as someone who was often overshadowed by Gladys in Elvis’ eyes. However, Vernon still had a huge influence on Elvis, especially after Parker decided that Vernon should be Elvis’ business manager.

It was a ultimately not a good decision, considering that Vernon had trouble keeping a steady job up until that point, Vernon had no experience as a successful businessperson, and Elvis experienced major financial problems in the years leading up to his death. It also didn’t help that Parker was a gambling addict. The movie portrays Parker’s gambling addiction as one of the reasons why he was so money-hungry and willing to do unscrupulous things to get access to Elvis’ fortune.

When Elvis was 13 years old, he and his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, the city that is most closely associated with Elvis’ childhood and young adulthood. (Chaydon Jay has the role of the adolescent Elvis in the movie.) Vernon got into trouble with the law in 1938, when he was imprisoned for eight months for check forgery. As a result of these legal problems, the family lost their home and had to move to a lower-income area that was populated by mostly African Americans.

The movie makes it look like Elvis was the only white kid in his area who was allowed or interested in going to the African American religious church revivals that were held in tents, where he would watch the passionate gospel performances in awe. Elvis was also a fan of R&B music at a time when it was concered “race music” that was only supposed to be performed and enjoyed by black people. Sometimes, Elvis would get teased or harassed for liking this music, but his decision to perform his version of this music ultimately set him on the road to stardom. Elvis was also a fan of country music, which he incorporated into many of his songs.

While an underage Elvis was sneaking into church revivals in tents, the movie shows Parker spending a lot of his time in another type of event that uses tents: carnivals. Parker is portrayed in flashback scenes as a carnival huckster skilled at selling and at coming up with con games. It’s a skill set that Parker brought with him when he decided to go into the music business. The movie takes a little too much time with scenes of Parker managing country artists such as Hank Snow (played by David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a musician who would eventually befriend Elvis.

Later, when Elvis and Parker meet in person, the movie stylishly stages this meeting in a carnival hall of mirrors. It’s an example of how this “Elvis” movie has fantastical elements. In real life, the first time Elvis met Parker was probably in a much more non-descript setting. Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife and filmmaking partner) is a producer of “Elvis” and the leader of the movie’s top-notch costume design and production design.

Elvis’ imitation of African American R&B and early rock and roll (rock pioneers Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino were big influences on Elvis) could be considered cultural appropriation or an extreme form of flattery, depending on your perspective. But what most people can agree on is that Elvis’ performance of this music is what caught the attention of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who is widely considered the person who gave Elvis his first big music break.

Elvis’ early recordings on Sun Records were then brought to the attention of Parker, who is portrayed as someone who couldn’t believe that the singer on the recordings was white, not black. And when Parker sees Elvis perform for the first time, Parker says in a narration voiceover what his first impression of Elvis was: “Greasy hair, girlie makeup. I cannot overstate how strange he looked.”

But what really convinced Parker to want to represent Elvis as his personal manager was seeing the audience reaction (especially from females) that Elvis got when Elvis performed on stage and thrust, shook and swiveled his hips and legs in a sexually suggestive manner. The movie makes a point of showing how these stage moves had a primal effect on women and teenage girls in the audience, as Elvis often got them into a frenzy. Expect to see several scenes of Elvis being branded as “lewd and lascivious” for these stage moves in various scenarios, with the controversy fueling his popularity.

One of the odd things about this “Elvis” movie is that there’s a scene where Elvis is on stage early in his career and his band members are the ones to tell him to wiggle his hips more. If you believe this scenario, Elvis wasn’t the one to come up with these sex symbol moves. He had to be talked into it by his band members. Parker says in his ever-present voiceover narration when commenting on women’s lusty reactions to Elvis: “He was a taste of forbidden fruit.”

The movie correctly shows that it was Parker who convinced Elvis to ditch Sun Records for a more lucrative offer from RCA Records, which had the type of national distribution and radio clout that Sun Records did not. Sun Records released some singles from Elvis in 1954 (including his first single “That’s All Right”), but they weren’t hits. Elvis’ first RCA Records single was 1955’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was a smash hit and became his first No. 1 single.

In a flashback voiceover, Parker brags about how he was the first person to create a merchandising bonanza around a pop star. In a very over-the-top scene, Parker shows off a huge stockpile of Elvis-branded merchandise that is cluttered all over a room in a Presley family home. It looks like an Elvis product hoarder decorated the room.

As Elvis became more famous and was spending more time away from home, it started to bother Gladys. The movie has a scene that’s a little on the Oedipal creepy side, where Gladys tells Elvis that she’s worried about the way that his female fans look at him. Gladys acts more like a jealous girlfriend than a mother. And then, Elvis tells his mother, “You’re my girl.”

Elvis’ experiences with groupies are very toned-down in the movie, which has no explicit sex scenes or even explicit sex talk. Priscilla is sidelined for most of the movie. After Priscilla and Elvis get married in 1967, she’s just shown as someone who’s part of his entourage and becomes an increasingly unhappy bystander when he kisses and flirts with female fans at concerts.

For a while, Elvis and Priscilla lived in Los Angeles, but Elvis’ world-famous Graceland estate in Memphis was always considered to be his main home. After Elvis’ death, Elvis Presley Enterprises (which approved this movie) turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. The movie shows some of Elvis’ indulgences, including his lavish spending habits and his tendency to carry around a lot of guns. As expected, there’s a scene of a drug-addled Elvis destroying a TV set by shooting it up with a gun—something that he was known to do in real life from time to time.

Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter, who was born in 1968) appears briefly in a few scenes. Priscilla’s breakup scene with Elvis is predictably melodramatic. She screams at him that she’s leaving him not because of his infidelities but because of his addiction to pills. Priscilla throws pills at Elvis before walking out the door. Priscilla and Elvis divorced in 1973, but their legal battles are never shown in the movie. Near the end of the film, there’s a tearjerking scene that’s the final word on their ill-fated romance.

Elvis’ movie star career is rushed through in a series of scenes that culminate with the media reporting that Elvis was in talks to be Barbra Streisand’s co-star in a 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born,” in which he would be playing a drug-addicted, has-been rock star. A radio announcer is heard commenting in a voiceover that Elvis wouldn’t have to do much acting for this role. Elvis, who had been trying with no success to become a serious dramatic actor, never did this remake of “A Star Is Born.” Kris Kristofferson ended up in the role.

With his movie career going nowhere, Elvis continues as a Las Vegas attraction at the International Hotel (which is now the Las Vegas Hilton) and as an artist doing several successful U.S. tours. Elvis wants to tour outside the U.S., but Parker keeps coming up with excuses for Elvis not to do these international tours. When the truth is exposed about why Parker is holding back on working outside the U.S., it leads to a turning point in the relationship between Elvis and Parker.

One of the more curious aspects of “Elvis” is that it doesn’t spend a lot of time showing Elvis in the recording studio. He was not a songwriter for almost all of his hits (an exception was his co-songwriting credit for “Heartbreak Hotel”), but this biopic doesn’t provide much insight into how he worked in a recording studio setting. And this “Elvis” movie doesn’t have any significant scenes of actors portraying the major songwriters (including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) who were responsible for writing Elvis’ biggest hits.

However, the movie has several scenes acknowledging the artists who inspired Elvis. Big Mama Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh) is seen belting out “Hound Dog,” a song that was famously covered by Elvis. Little Richard (played by Alton Mason) appears briefly in a performance clip. During a media event, Elvis points to Fats Domino and says that Domino is the real King of Rock and Roll.

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola) and Mahalia Jackson (played by Cle Morgan) have small roles in the movie. B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Elvis became mutual admirers of each other, and the movie briefly shows that friendship. If these influential African American artists are shown performing in the movie, it’s for a very limited amount of screen time.

The movie shows glimpses of Elvis being a concerned citizen who wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement, but he was ordered by Parker never to talk about politics in public. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (both in 1968) and the civil unrest in the U.S. in the late 1960s are all portrayed as media news backdrops to Elvis’ personal problems, while Parker gripes about how America is going downhill because of the hippie counterculture movement. Just like many other Elvis biographies, the movie depicts Elvis as becoming more isolated the older he got and the deeper he got into drug addiction.

Elvis’ entourage, which was famously called the Memphis Mafia, is portrayed as not much more than being a bunch of “yes men” in the movie. The one who gets the most screen time is Jerry Schiller (played by Luke Bracey), who’s mostly seen acting like a personal assistant/security employee. A few of the other Memphis Mafia members portrayed in the movie are Steve Binder (played by Dacre Montgomery), Bones Howe (played by Gareth Davies) and Scotty Moore (played by Xavier Samuel), who don’t do or say anything noteworthy.

Because Elvis was a drug addict, the movie shows that he had his own Dr. Feelgood on the payroll to give injections and pills of whatever drugs were requested. In the movie, this enabling doctor is called Dr. Nick (played by Tony Nixon), and he’s based on the real-life Dr. George Nichopoulos, whose nickname was Dr. Nick. Just like in the movie, the real-life Dr. Nick had a reputation for being a drug supplier to many celebrities, including Elvis. The movie shows that Elvis was mostly addicted to amphetamines and opioids.

A harrowing scene in the movie shows Elvis collapsing in a hallway shortly before he’s scheduled to do a concert. Members of his entourage frantically try to revive him, but to no avail. The decision must be made to take Elvis to a hospital, or summon Dr. Nick to give Elvis an injection so that Elvis can do the show. You can easily guess what decision was made in a world where people live by the rule “The show must go on.” The movie makes a point of implying that this scenario happened too many times behind the scenes, and it led to Elvis’ downward spiral.

None of this is really shocking because there have already been so many exposés of Elvis’ private life, there’s really almost no new information to uncover. Elvis’ bizarre 1970 visit with then-U.S. president Richard Nixon is neither mentioned nor shown in this movie, probably because there was an entire movie made about it: director Liza Johnson’s 2016 comedy/drama “Elvis & Nixon,” starring Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. Luhrmann’s “Elvis” movie isn’t concerned about being a celebrity “tell all” biopic as much as it is concerned about presenting Elvis’ life in ways that are served up like it’s on a conveyor belt and in other ways like it’s part of a splashy musical.

In other words, “Elvis” is a very mixed bag, but it shines the best and brightest in the area that matters the most: showing Elvis as a music artist. The movie has performances of Elvis hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “That’s All Right,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Butler does very good renditions of some these classics, with standout show-stoppers depicting Elvis’ 1968 “comeback” TV special (“Elvis” on NBC) and some of his performances in Las Vegas.

The movie’s soundtrack also has some contemporary, hip-hop-infused remakes of classic songs, such as Doja Cat’s version of “Vegas” and Swae Lee and Diplo’s version of Crudup’s “Tupelo Shuffle,” a song that Elvis also recorded. Eminem’s original song “The King and I”(featuring CeeLo Green) is also part of the movie’s soundtrack. These songs don’t sound completely out of place in the movie, but the contemporary music does take viewers out of the 1950s to 1970s, the decades when Elvis made his music. However, “Elvis” is definitely a crowd pleaser in being a feast of Elvis music, as it should be.

“Suspicious Minds” is the most prominently used Elvis song in the movie. Even though the lyrics are about lovers who’ve lost trust in each other, “Suspicious Minds” could also be a theme song about the growing mistrust in the deteriorating relationship between Elvis and Parker. How much did Parker really play a role in causing Elvis’ downfall? The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide. Even with all of Elvis’ pitfalls and self-destructive excesses, “Elvis” has a clear message that any problems he had in his life were always surpassed by his love of performing and connecting with his fans.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Elvis” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022. The movie was released in other countries on June 22, 2022.

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

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.

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