Summer of Soul

Photograph: Disney
Rating 8.4
Streamer Disney+
Seasons 1
Episodes 1 x 120 mins

There are a few moments in history which most of us missed, but were luckily caught on camera, allowing us to relive them on the screen, sighing a “oh, what I would do to have been there.”

Meanwhile those randoms who were there gloat that it was a once in a life time experience, the atmosphere electric, making your hair stand on end. There’s the England World Cup win in 1966, Freddie Mercury’s Live Aid performance in ‘85, the fall of the Berlin wall in ‘89… And now, after watching this film, you’ll be able to add the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 to that list.

Because you’re unlikely to have heard of (let alone seen footage of) this festival before now, despite the impressive roster of stars that were performing. That’s because just 100 miles north in Sullivan County, Woodstock was taking place, soaking up all the media attention whilst acts such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King, Gladys Knight and the Family Stone, went ignored down in Harlem. Luckily, this wrong is finally being set right, after the footage shot by the late Hal Tulchin landed in the hands of musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. And cor, are we glad it did.

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This was an extraordinary festival, with world renowned performers giving their best, showing every emotion from sadness, grief, elation and utter joy.  And Thompson puts the footage together in a masterful way, pairing footage of the musicians with archive  explaining the cultural context of the festival, which came just a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, triggering riots in the area. And Harlem Cultural Festival itself was another form of resistance, with organisers thinking that six weekends of music would release some tension, and highlight the beauty of black culture and music.

It did just that, with Motown, jazz, gospel, Afrobeat and funk music playing as police kept their distance, the Black Panthers instead working as security for the performers. The magic of the event is perfectly portrayed in Summer of Soul, so much so that you’re very likely to start bopping along to the beat. And the added documentary elements make it even more enchanting, hearing from both performers and locals who lived in the area at the time, describing this life changing summer of good vibes, excellent music, and peaceful resistance.

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The reviews have been excellent for Summer of Soul, which is given five stars by The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, who says “the lack of awareness of this event is another tragic example of black history being ignored. Only this time the record survived, and now we all get to share in it.” In the Financial Times, Danny Leigh says “it is the film of 2021 so far,” saying it has “the rush of a freshly cracked time capsule — one advantage of going 52 years unseen.” And The Times’s Kevin Maher praises Thompson’s directing, which he says “consistently grounds the film in political context,” but adds, “Yet mostly the joy here is in the footage and the thrill of accessing propulsive music and imagery that is vital, alive and new. Yet old.”

First shown July 2021.

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