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‘Summer of Soul’

So much has been written about the documentary based on unseen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that you won’t really be needing another recommendation from me. But among all the performances assembled by the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, from the series of concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park — now known as Marcus Garvey Park — during that summer 52 years ago, there are some things in particular that I wouldn’t want you to miss.

The gospel sequence, which begins with the profoundly thrilling sound of Dorothy Morrison’s deep contralto leading the massed Edwin Hawkins Singers on “Oh Happy Day”, stands as the foundation of the whole thing. Its climax comes when Mahalia Jackson, feeling unwell, invites Mavis Staples to start off “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which the younger woman does beautifully. But then Mahalia, evidently revived by what she has heard, comes forward to join Mavis — and you can sense the bedrock of Manhattan Island shaking to the majestic roar of their voices.

It’s like one generation handing the torch to another, and there’s quite a lot of that feeling throughout the film: the elaborate stage costumes of the Fifth Dimension and the straw-thin David Ruffin giving way to the hippie threads of Sly and the Family Stone being one example, the contrast between restrained mohair-suited blues of B. B. King and Nina Simone’s closing recital of a challenging poem by the Last Poets’ David Nelson being another. As someone says, this “was when the negro died and Black was born.” (Ruffin, by the way, had just left the Temptations and sings “My Girl” magnificently, wringing the neck of his extraordinary falsetto.)

The director uses standard documentary techniques — a strong gallery of talking heads and the deployment of newsreel footage — but there were times, particularly in the opening sequences, when I thought he’d been influenced by the video montages of Arthur Jafa, whose shows in London and Berlin I’ve written about. That’s a good way to go, although Thompson doesn’t overdo it. The stories parallel to the music are well chosen. The activist Denise Oliver-Velez talks about the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault gives a shattering description of her experience in 1961 as the first black female student to be enrolled at the University of Georgia; she went on to become the first black female journalist in the New York Times newsroom.

Of course the deepest impression is left by the knowledge that here are black artists performing to black audiences numbered in the tens of thousands, on their home turf — something on a different scale from the Apollo Theatre a few blocks away. (Harlem was thought to be dangerous territory for white people then, and there are very, very few non-black faces to be seen in these vast crowds.) Sly Stone was also a star at Woodstock that summer, but you can’t watch his “Everyday People” in Harlem without thinking that this spine-tingling performance has gained an extra dimension from the context. And you can see very clearly why Miles Davis (who is not in the film) wanted this audience rather than those who came to see him in European-style concert halls, expecting to hear “My Funny Valentine”.

I remembered, too, the times I’d seen Nina Simone at Ronnie Scott’s or the South Bank, and been irritated and even infuriated by the distance she’d chosen to open between herself and her all-white audiences, expressed in bouts of brusqueness and truculence generally ascribed to a diva’s temperament. To see her in a Harlem park, gently crooning the brand-new “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to her people, so centred, so serenely beautiful in her Afrofuturist hair and robes and jewellery, made me feel ashamed of those responses from 30-odd years ago. Sure, I loved the music in Summer of Soul, but I also came out of the cinema into a warm London night with a lot to think about.

* Summer of Soul is in cinemas and on the Hulu streaming platform now. Here’s the trailer.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you Richard, I caught the streaming from the Sheffield doc festival and your brilliantly chosen words with regard to Mahalia et al made me tingle in the same way i did watching it. My first thought was to catch the whole thing again on the big screen, which i will be doing later on today!

    July 16, 2021
  2. John Kieffer #

    Such fine words Richard. Thank you!

    July 16, 2021

    Oh, this is a fantastic film – I saw a pre-release screening at one of the Picture House cinemas last Sunday afternoon and it filled me with more than enough joy to sustain me through the rather dispiriting events at Wembley later in the evening (and I’m talking about events off the field, not on it).

    The music, of course, was peerless – Gladys, Mavis and Mahalia, Nina, 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder (good drums!), Sly, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Sonny Sharrock (!!) – so many others. But as important as the music, wasn’t the footage of the audience at the Harlem event inspirational? The sense of community and togetherness at this vast gathering, and the delight in the performances they were witnessing, will stay with me for a long time. What a gas of a film. And there are apparently many hours of film left to be explored, so let’s hope that we see and hear more from this great occasion.

    July 16, 2021
  4. It is indeed a wonderful film, one of the best music documentaries I’ve seen and Questlove deserves all the praise that he’s received for how he’s put it together. In the main the talking heads are good because they’re usually people that were connected to the event either as participant or audience member. The contributions by members of the Fifth Dimension are particularly touching.
    With Stevie Wonder too you get the feeling of an artist on the cusp of moving from creating great music from a somewhat controlling Motown environment to something more personal.
    The promoter, Tony Lawrence, deserves a mention as he comes over as a fascinating figure in his own right. Apparently he’s dropped out of sight and despite Questlove’s best efforts can’t be traced.

    July 17, 2021
  5. Paul Tickell #


    July 21, 2021
  6. Paul Tickell #

    Thanks, Richard, for your stimulating review. I saw the film on the big screen this evening and second all the previous comments. It’s a great film – not least the way it weaves in the running social and political commentary which feels more like early Soviet cinema agitprop at times (a good thing!). There is too much to single out – watch the whole film – but I have to say that Mavis Staples and Mahlia Jackson performing together is almost too much, the energies and emotions released close to terrifying: it’s a great moment in cinema.

    July 21, 2021
  7. Belatedly saw this at the French Institute. Four stars, I think. The music is, of course, wonderful, and how I wish I’d been able to see this fifty years ago. Take My Hand, Precious Lord had me in tears. My only gripe was that, too often, the performances were cut or talked over. Some of the interviews were interesting, more were trite. A shame that some way couldn’t have been found to accommodate them while letting us see more of Abbey Lincoln and others. Perhaps a DVD with extra footage?

    August 27, 2021

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