4.5 out of 5 stars
There are many stories of treasures that have been found after being lost for years. It is hard to imagine that footage for one of the most significant music festivals in 1969 would be one of those tales of discovery. No, it was not from Woodstock, but from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was an event credited with one of the most significant lists of performers from that decade, but it went relatively unnoticed until now.
After the footage was discovered by producer Robert Fyvolent, he eventually handed this musical treasure trove over to Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson). As a musician and artist, he developed a documentary that becomes a historical journey for many who were part of the event. Summer of Soul looks back to an era when the music of the African-American community was beginning to define the airwaves. Even though it was not televised or reported on by mainstream media, the festival proved to be a turning point in the history of black artists.
Some of the headline acts included Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, and The 5th Dimension, but that is not where the story ends. These artists helped the six-week-long event get notoriety and have an ever-expanding audience. Each of their performances will capture the attention of modern audiences. Yet, the interviews with many of the performers and attendees will make it worth the price of admission. Their accounts help us to see this expression of the past and how it is reflective of the present.
Questlove weaves together the festival footage with interviews and news from the era in a masterful way that makes this historical event relevant for today’s viewers. To hear the accounts of those in attendance and of many of the performers provides the personal element needed to make this truly special. Discussions that give us a glimpse into the past with a look to how it still impacts our lives today. Like any music festival, you may come to hear a specific performer. Still, the overall experience will do more than entertain and it will change your perspective on race, history and how music permeates our souls.
Reel Dialogue: God & music
One thing that is evident throughout this film is how much God and Christianity have influenced the world of music. Interspersed amongst the historical accounts and interviews are beautiful expressions of gospel music. From the international hit ‘Oh Happy Day’ by The Edwin Hawkins Singers to the legendary vocals of Mahalia Jackson, it is impossible to keep Jesus and the Bible from getting a mention.
Some may dismiss this element of the film as purely cultural, but this would be disingenuous to minimise God's impact on this aspect of culture. His presence is expressed in different ways in the arts, relationships and society. Yet, it is impossible to miss in this film and may cause audiences to ask about how the church could have such a valuable role in music and people’s lives.
If this is you and you are wondering where to begin this investigation, the Psalms are a wonderful place to start this artistic and spiritual journey. Many of these passages are actual songs or have been the inspiration for many hymns throughout the centuries. We hope it will inspire you to explore more about the one who is the inspiration of many artists around the world.
Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Psalm 95:1