Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is currently on Hulu but if you have the opportunity to see it on a big screen, you should go. I saw the music documentary at my local theater. I got there just before a line formed – about 10 minutes before the showtime. The cashier told everyone to stay after the credits for a special treat and I wanted to tell him that he was preaching to the choir. I learned from my father that the movie is not over until the all the credits have rolled. And after having worked as a sound engineer for many years, I appreciate all the hard work that the people do behind the scenes and this is the only time that they are recognized for their contribution.
The theater was not crowded and as soon as the movie began, a woman in front of me started texting. I could see her phone screen and hear the whoosh as her texts were sent. I finally had to lean over and ask her to put her phone away. She fidgeted throughout the movie and as soon as the credits came on, she took her phone out again. There was a couple a few rows behind who had a running commentary through the film – loud enough to be heard and annoying enough that I could not make out what they were saying, so it was just loud mumbling. Now that more people are going out to theaters, I may have start watching all my movies at home again.
The movie documents the third Harlem Cultural Festival held in the summer of 1969 at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). This is the summer that most people think of Woodstock or the moon landing. Intercut with the concert scenes are short history lessons such as the losses the few years before of Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. The rise of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. And there were cuts to current events like the moon landing. As we see Walter Cronkite crying as man walks on the moon, the people questioned in the Harlem audience were almost unanimous in their belief that the money could have been better spent housing and feeding people.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson did an amazing job here of intercutting the events and talking heads to explain what made this festival so important to the people of Harlem and putting it all into context. But I would love to see a series of films of each of the concerts (40 hours total) and all the performers whose full performances were not included, like Moms Mabley.
There are conversations with some of the performers, who are seeing their performances for the first time. I cried along with Marilyn McCoo while she was watching and talking about that period of time.
About halfway through the film are several gospel performances that will just blow you away. Everyone has been raving about this movie and, for me, if the movie had ended right there, it still would have been perfect. But instead, we get so much more, like Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone. (Interestingly, despite the title, we do not get any Gil Scott-Heron – I do not know if he ever appeared at any of these concerts.)
Despite some sound problems – a ground buzzing during Sly’s performance, drums too loud sometimes because they were bleeding into vocal mics or other instruments mics, instruments you could see but could not hear, and an occasional back-up singer who was louder than the lead vocal – the music was still wonderful and almost perfect. I am sure there was no multitrack recording, so the editors and director had to work with what they had. I also loved little tidbits like the stage had to face west because they did not have the lights – money was tight and producer Tony Lawrence managed to round up great performers and have a great-looking show despite that.
Another piece that was fun for me was watching a performer for whom I have done sound (Ray Barretto) or performers I have seen for free elsewhere like the Chambers Brothers in Central Park, where John Lennon spoke, for Geraldo Rivera’s One to One charity, which was in the early 1970s.
It was an interesting time and that this series of concerts could take place so close to me and yet I knew nothing about them until this movie is a wonder. A local NYC TV channel broadcast an hour of each concert on Saturday evenings from June through August 1969 and I still never saw any part of it.
Amazingly, the movie was stuck in some basement all these years and was just found. Hal Tuchin filmed all the performances (six shows) but could not sell it to anyone. And finally Tony Lawrence gets the widespread recognition he deserves for putting together such amazing concerts.
Big screen or small screen – you should see this movie.
By Carene Lydia Lopez