Posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2021 by Joshua Meyer
Summer of Soul debuted its first trailer during this year’s belated Academy Awards and the film’s director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, also happened to serve as music director for the ceremony. The documentary focuses on the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 and in anticipation of its theatrical release and streaming Hulu release this Friday, Searchlight Pictures has unveiled a new featurette exploring both the festival and the broader cultural forces at work in America, then and now.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen Oscar contenders like The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood returning to 1969: a pivotal year in U.S. history when the country underwent great political upheaval and social change. Among other things, it was the year of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration. The summer brought Woodstock, but it’s another overlooked music event, the Harlem Cultural Festival, that serves as the documentary subject of Summer of Soul.
You may know Questlove as the co-frontman and drummer of the Roots, who burst into the mainstream around the turn of the millennium with music videos like “The Seed 2.0.” They now serve as Jimmy Fallon’s in-house band on The Tonight Show. Summer of Soul sees Questlove making his film directorial debut with a project that examines his own soul-music roots and shines a light on an event that has gone somewhat neglected in the historical record until now.
When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised
Our glowing review of Summer of Soul notes some of the famous names who appeared at the Harlem Cultural Festival: Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension. The event was stacked with Black musical talent and cameras were there to capture their performances. Yet unlike Woodstock — which had its own widely seen documentary and has lived large in the public imagination — its footage sat in a basement and never received distribution.
To paraphrase the poet Gil-Heron Scott (and the film’s own subtitle): the revolution was not televised. Summer of Soul exhumes the footage and sprinkles in interviews that help trace a line from the “transformative period” of 1969 to over 50 years later when the George Floyd protests swept the nation in the summer of 2020. Perhaps the most compelling part of the above featurette is when Questlove draws a direct parallel between America’s present and past, saying: “The same things they were talking about back then were happening to us right now.”
Summer of Soul hits Hulu and theaters on Friday, July 2, 2021.
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