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  Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Happiness In Harlem
Year: 2021
Director: Questlove
Stars: Nina Simone, Jesse Jackson, Gladys Knight, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr, Mavis Staples, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, Sonny Sharrock, Edwin Hawkins, Willie Tyler, David Ruffin, Max Roach, Al Sharpton, Chris Rock
Genre: Documentary, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Back in 1969, in Harlem, it was felt among the largely black and Puerto Rican population that they were living through a watershed as the sixties drew to an end, and that there was a chance to bring about real change in their communities. But one event crystalised those feelings during that Summer, and that was a series of concerts held in the then-Mount Morris Park known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, bringing together the cream of soul music, gospel and more to play for the locals. A TV producer was present to film the whole thing, in the hope that he could assemble the footage and sell it as the "Black Woodstock" - but the tapes languished in his basement for fifty years.

Fortunately, band leader Questlove found out about the tapes and had them edited together into this two-hour extravaganza intended to serve up a flavour of that heady time, all delivered in pristine video clips with, most importantly, superb sound as the next best thing to actually being there back then. He also gathered interviews with people who had attended and performed, as well as a smattering of celebrities to offer their observations on the historical significance, though arguably the most telling of these chats was with the concertgoer who is filmed gazing at memories he was sure had gone forever, and that nobody would believe him as to their significance. His eyes brim with tears.

Yet while it was good to get some context for this, the Summer that many young black men were being packed off to Vietnam to fight, that whitey was on the Moon, as Gil Scott Heron would put it, and heroin was flooding the streets of the black communities and resulting in a deep-seated problem that pretty much put paid to any useful social revolution, there is a part of you that says, please, let's hear more of the music. Too often the director interrupted the proceedings with chit-chat, often in the middle of a piece of music that sounded terrific, and did not need someone talking over it to allow us to understand its significance. A lot of times that music truly did speak for itself, and you wanted to experience it.

The better known names had a better shake at the stick than the more obscure artists, but imagine hearing Sonny Sharrock for the first time on this documentary and only grasping about twenty seconds of his incredible guitar playing until an interviewee was placed on top of his tunes. It came across as somewhat unnecessary, which in a way it was not, because there was a lot of history and controversy to be mined from the reasons why this footage was not so much deliberately neglected, but utterly ignored as not worthy of note. However, you still had to counter with the talking heads sticking their oar in, and it was weirdly disrespectful to some immense talents like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Gladys Knight and (especially) Nina Simone, whose set proves the most incendiary.

Maybe the trouble was this archive brought up so many stories that the film struggled to mention them all, and as a result it needlessly diluted them. There was an interview with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault which was played over Simone's performance that did them both a disservice, since the writer's story was at least worthy of a documentary of her own as the first African American woman to attend Georgia University, with all the racism she encountered but rose above. Then there's the point that the Moon landings were regarded as spending money that would be better spent on the poor: those landings have paid for themselves many times over, while the contemporary Vietnam War was far more costly and damaging, and you long for someone to point that out (perhaps they did, but did not make the news broadcasts). Nevertheless, Summer of Soul was worth seeing, for the performances we did get, though what this needed to do it justice was a box set where you could choose between the interviews and original footage. If only the documentary had been made at the time!
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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