In the hot and sweaty summer of 1969, the well-known music festival known as Woodstock happened in Bethel, New York. Everyone knew its name. One hundred miles away, there was another festival occurring that same summer with a little more seasoning...and a little more soul. And it was free to attend!
It was called the Harlem Cultural Festival, promoted and hosted by Tony Lawrence. It didn’t get even a taste of the mainstream press and basically faded into obscurity...until now. In his film directorial debut, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson took 50-year-old forgotten and almost-discarded footage of the concert series attended by over 300,000 people and provided a visual museum full of music, fashion and culture. Thus, Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Be Televised), which made its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night as part of the fest’s U.S. Documentary Competition, was born.
Described as “part concert film, part historical record,” Summer of Soul is a rich reminiscing of those who got to experience the festival, as well as for those who lived during that time. For those of us who weren’t born yet to see it, it serves as a delicious combo meal of “I wish I was there” and “I feel like I was there.”
I could smell the “Afro Sheen and chicken” described as wafting in the air as I sat wide-eyed watching rare footage of Stevie Wonder performing a fascinating drum solo, The 5th Dimension’s cool anecdote on the aftermath of their “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” recording, David Ruffin crooning a solo rendition of “My Girl” in the most Ruffin-esque way possible, Sly and the Family Stone’s impact on fashion, Nina Simone’s afro-futuristic coif as her deep timbre inspired a hush over the crowd, and more.
“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Nina Simone pointedly asks in the doc, perfectly summarizing the images of the Rev. Jesse Jackson orating and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach performing over the “sea of Black people” during an era equally marked by Black trauma, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Vietnam War and the ongoing redlining and segregation in New York City and other American cities.
“It was definitely not lost on me that not only were the circumstances that occurred before 1969 and during 1969 that caused the festival to even happen in the first place, they were mirroring exactly what was happening in the time of 2018, 2019, 2020,” Thompson told Deadline in a recent interview. “You know, it was almost like an exact parallel. And for me, that’s one of the scariest things imaginable that if a brilliant monumental festival falls down in the forest, there’s no one around to hear it, did it actually happen.”
That very “scary” philosophy was echoed by some viewers of the documentary as well, who had the privilege of watching the footage to provide live commentary. “It’s like it happened and then they threw it away,” one attendee said of the experience. Another noted that they’d “never turned around and looked” at the magnitude of what the concert series truly meant to Black culture. In one of the most standout moments of the doc, one attendee watched the footage in awe, expressing just how it felt to actually see proof of an event that seemed so magical and surreal, he almost didn’t believe it really happened.
All of the archival footage included in the doc was captured by filmmaker Hal Tulchin, who tried to sell it to studios—even branding it as “the Black Woodstock” to assist—but none were interested. According to Thompson, the footage was actually “one second away” from being discarded before he decided to salvage it for the making of this documentary. As Black folks, we all know the importance of preserving our stories and history, so I have to salute Thompson and the entire Summer of Soul crew for providing this gift of a cultural wonderland.
Summer of Soul is expected to be picked up by a streamer and is among the titles with predicted “commercial success.” I can totally see it being picked up by Netflix or HBO Max as both have a slew of quality documentaries to boast, but it appears bidding is still underway at the time of this blog’s posting.
If and when it’s picked up, I believe Summer of Soul will serve as the perfect escape (albeit also a torturous tease) as we remain locked down during the global pandemic reminiscing on the days we got to gather in a mass community of friends and strangers alike and bond through the power of music.
Cheers to “Black Woodstock”—ha! Woodstock wishes.
Update: 2/8/2021 at 12:19 p.m. ET: It appears my general streamer acquisition prediction was right, but the ultimate winner isn’t the ones I name-checked...it’s Hulu! According to Deadline, Disney’s Searchlight and Hulu secured worldwide rights to Questlove’s directorial award-winning debut.
“I’m so honored to be allowed to manifest my dreams after all this time,” Questlove said in a statement when the deal was confirmed on Thursday. “This is truly an honor. Summer of Soul is a passion project and to have it resonate with so many people on so many levels has been incredibly rewarding. I am very happy to begin this new chapter with the team at Searchlight/Disney/Hulu and look forward to sharing the important story behind the film with audiences worldwide.”
We don’t have a release date as of yet, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted on that, as well!