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Hulu SUMMER OF SOUL (Questlove, 2021) (1 Viewer)

JoeStemme

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The subtitle: “Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” is a riff on the 60s phrase: “The revolution will not be televised” which was popularized in song by Gil Scott-Heron and others. Director Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) does just coyly use the phrase here - it becomes the thesis of the Documentary.

Questlove and his staff have done a remarkable job unearthing hours and hours of footage of not only the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival at the heart of the production, but of some incredible artifacts of the era preserved on film, still photographs and, miles of videotape. The subtitle refers to the fact that the documentary of the six week long concert series remained unseen in the basement of TV Producer Hal Tuchin for over 50 years because he couldn't interest anyone in buying the footage of the “Black Woodstock” for broadcast or the big screen*.

The concert footage (captured on videotape, but cleaned up video and audio) looks and sounds pretty terrific considering the format and age. Kudos to Questlove for maintaining the proper aspect ratios throughout. The lineup is legendary including a young Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips near the beginning of their careers and Mahalia Jackson and comedian Moms Mabley in their twilight. The Fifth Dimension, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin, B.B. King and others all get spotlight treatment, but it is Sly And The Family Stone that really steal the show. You can literally see the crowd swell as they want to get closer and closer to the stage. Stone puts on a enthusiastic show, but Trumpeter-Singer Cynthia Robinson?! What a force of nature! Festival Producer Tony Lawrence is a dynamo himself as the M.C..

If it were “merely” a Concert Film, SUMMER OF LOVE would be a success, but Questlove takes his subtitle seriously. He gives incredible context to the world that existed in 1969, particularly in the black and minority community. The pride in the voices of those who attended including Jesse Jackson, Wonder, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight is palpable. There are also interviews with, as Sly Stone might call them, 'Everyday People' who were there. More contemporary voices such as Lin Manuel-Miranda and Charlayne Hunter-Gault are also included to give context. For the most part the interviews are illuminating and on point (Chris Rock kind of sticks out as a 'celebrity'). The only slight issue here is that Questlove inter-cuts the interviews too often during the middle of a performance. This is especially true in the second half, when the thesis has already been clearly and powerfully stated. You have Nina Simone giving a fiery poem reading - she speaks for herself!

SUMMER OF SOUL is a meaningful music documentary. It's a treasure that the long-forgotten footage has been preserved and shown (hopefully, the hours of outtakes will be viewable in some form down the road). If only the movie were as long as the one that the 'other' Woodstock got (Wadleigh's films is just over 3 hours long; SOUL is just under 2). Leaving you wanting more is a sure sign that Questlove has made a fine movie.


* One caveat I would add is that the other “Black Woodstock”, 1972's Wattstax show, was released as a big screen feature film. The Staple Singers and Jesse Jackson appeared at both events.
 

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