By Jason M. Rubin
Summer of Soul is two hours of rapturous entertainment and pointed political commentary — neither of which has gone out of style 52 years later.
The short review of Summer of Soul, the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, longtime drummer of Jimmy Fallon’s house band The Roots, is that it may be the most historically significant music documentary ever and perhaps the best concert film since The Last Waltz. But like The Last Waltz, Summer of Soul — which documents a series of concerts in Harlem, New York, filmed in the summer of 1969 but ignored until now — is much more than a concert movie. How the series came together, why it was so significant at the time, and why it was swept under the rug — like so many other aspects of Black history and identity — is as meaningful and compelling as the music itself. Which is what impels a longer review.
The series itself was intended in part to avoid the rioting that occurred the year before when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The idea was to short-circuit a potential summer of violence by holding a free concert series in a large park in the heart of Harlem. It not only proved a peaceable solution, it achieved so much more. It was culturally unifying, pride-inducing, and offered a rare opportunity for a primarily Black audience of considerable size and diversity (in age and gender) to gather together in public and be seen in a positive light. There were no signs of riot gear or fire hoses.
The artists who participated were the cream of the crop, not just among Black listeners but in all of music, and they represented an unusually broad swath of genres, from rock and pop to soul and funk, with gospel, jazz, and world music — even comedy — well represented. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, B.B King, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masakela, and others graced the stage and inspired — and were inspired by — an adoring audience, several members of which provide present-day reflections on the event.
The concert series predated Woodstock by mere weeks and the Apollo 11 moon landing was completed during one of the performances. These historical signposts offer a compelling contrast between what was happening in Harlem at the time and the mainstream interest of competing “white” events of primary interest to America’s majority population. Summer of Soul documents a moment in the year 1969, but the Black audiences who gathered there that summer were not hippies per se, unlike the audience at Woodstock. Big Afro hair was more a means of cultural and ethnic identity than the “freak flag” long hair dissent of white hippies. When white hippies talked about liberation they sought a hedonistic freedom — the freedom to smoke weed, engage in free love, and live outside societal norms. For Black audiences, freedom meant political power, legal protection, and economic opportunity. In the Woodstock documentary we see the audience indulging in the wanton behavior they desired (including the freedom to go naked). In contrast, the Harlem audiences are well-dressed, well-behaved, and are fully engaged in the speeches and sounds coming at them.
When news broke at the concert series that Americans had landed on the moon, those interviewed were quick to point out that it was white Americans who went to the moon, white Americans who were allocated billions of dollars to the space race. Meanwhile the Black community suffered poverty and deprivation. No one in Harlem seemed impressed with the moon landing — not while Black people here on earth were hungry and needed jobs. Maybe the fact that footage of the festival featured such blunt truth-talking — Jesse Jackson gets his fair share of screen time — contributed to the reels lying dormant and unknown for so long. Questlove deserves enormous credit for using his platform to lovingly resurrect the footage, and for doing such a skillful job of contextualizing the event and reaching out to many of the artists still alive to share their impressions of being there.
Summer of Soul — subtitled (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a take-off on a Gil Scot-Heron song title — is in select theaters and is streaming on Hulu. It is two hours of rapturous entertainment and pointed political commentary — neither of which has gone out of style 52 years later. This is a film you will dance to and talk about for many years to come.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.