Summer of Soul is subtitled "(Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)", which carries some irony in this streaming era when the movie was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu. But one of the most dumbfounding things about the film is that in effect is wasn't televised, or even shown anywhere at all, for fifty years. Seeing it now, it seems impossible that the footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was buried, while Woodstock, which took place at the same time as the Harlem festival and was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1970, has been hailed as the chronicle of a generation ever since. Of course, the reason Woodstock triumphed while the "Black Woodstock" went undiscovered is obvious. Only one musical act appeared at both festivals: Sly and the Family Stone.
It's impossible to single out any one moment in Summer of Soul, because it is filled with them. I can't resist listing a few favorites.
There's the 5th Dimension, singing "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In". Thompson shows Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo watching the footage with tears in their eyes, explaining how important it was to play Harlem for the first time. (Rolling Stone had a nice little piece on this.) And there's one festival attendee, talking about how beautiful McCoo was, admitting as if he was realizing it for the first time, "God, she's my first crush." This segment also shows that Thompson, a novice film maker, understands better than most how to integrate interviews with music. It is a pet peeve of mine that movies of musical performances too often truncate those performances, as if there was something more important we should pay attention to, This happens in Summer of Soul, but it's an interesting move by Thompson: the words blend with the songs, make the songs expand, give them context. He never loses a connection with the performances, but he invites the interviewees into those performances. At those times, it seems impossible that Questlove had never directed a movie before.
The gospel section is thrilling. We see the Bay Area's own Edwin Hawkins Singers. We see the Staple Singers. We see Mahalia Jackson. And then, a beautiful moment, set up at the festival by Jesse Jackson, who said "Precious Lord" was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite song. Mahalia Jackson was scheduled to sing it, as she had at King's funeral, and once again, Thompson knows exactly where to put interview material. Mavis Staples says Mahalia was her idol, and then, as if she were narrating what we are seeing, she said Mahalia "leaned over and told me, 'Baby, Halie don't feel too good today. I need you to help me sing this song." Thompson inserts relevant footage of King's last minutes as Jackson speaks, and then Mavis sings. After a verse, Mahalia stands up and takes the microphone, and she sings (the captioning says simply "VOCALIZING"). Mavis steps up, and the emotions as they sing together are overwhelming. Mahalia hands the mic to Mavis (in her interview, Mavis says, "When she gave me that microphone back, I said, 'Oh, she likes what I'm doin'").
Sly and the Family Stone demonstrated not just that they were a pre-eminent band, but that they changed everything. This is more apparent here than in Woodstock, where their monumental appearance is just a great moment among great moments. Thompson once again uses interviews to set the stage for what we are seeing. One man describes his expectations for R&B groups at the time: all men in matching suits. "You're wondering, 'What are they doing with girls in the group? What is white people doing up there? And a white guy is the drummer?' We couldn't get this thing, that the white guy is the drummer. You know, he's not supposed to be able to do that. As soon as everything was kicking, it was on!" A female attendee says, "To see a Black woman playin' a trumpet made me feel great." None of this would matter if Sly and the Family Stone weren't also one of the great bands.
The movie I was most reminded of was Dave Chappelle's Block Party. That movie featured a variety of acts at a neighborhood concert in Brooklyn, and the sense of community is so strong ... at the time, I called it "the feel good movie of the year". The same can be said of Summer of Soul, which brilliantly blends great music and social context in a package that is the best new-to-me movie I've seen this year.