Film Review: Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

STUDIO: Searchlight Pictures, Hulu and Onyx Collective | DIRECTOR: Questlove
SPECS: PG-13 | 117 min. | Music documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2

Presented in the same summer as the landmark pop and rock festival known as “Woodstock,” the third annual Harlem Cultural Festival took place over several weeks some 100 miles South of Max Yasgur’s farm and came to be dubbed as “The Black Woodstock” over the years. But this impressive first-time directorial effort from bandleader/author/musicologist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson offers proof that that was a whole lot more than just exceptional music that transpired in Mount Morris Park in South Harlem in the summer of ’69.

Sly Stone takes you higher in Summer of Soul.

Culled from hours of footage that was discovered over the last few years, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) encompasses the broad spectrum of what was considered “black music” at the time. It includes Motown, funk, soul, gospel, pop, Latino sounds and jazz, represented by legendary musical talents. The setting, in a park in front of hundreds of thousands of people in the sweltering heat, and the era—Black Panthers served as security guards, the word “negro” was being substituted for “black” by the public and in the media, and  a new consciousness fueled solidarity and pride in Harlem and other minority communities—help to make this much more than simply a concert film.

The musical highlights are boasted by Stevie Wonder, singing, playing keyboards and drums; The 5th Dimension, outfitted with bright yellow shirts and fringed orange vests, performing “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the musical Hair; a scratchy voiced Eddie Ruffin of The Temptations, singing “My Girl”; the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing their spiritual top 40 hit “Oh, Happy Day”; Gladys Knight and the Pips banging out “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”;  and a psychedelicized Sly Stone and leading his multi-racial Family Stone in celebratory versions of “I Want to Take you Higher” and “Sing a Simple Song.”  All this and Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, Ray Barretto, B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Willie Tyler & Lester and others, too!

The musical moments are supplemented by commentary by both musicians and Harlem residents who were at the shows, as well as such personalities as Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda and writer Greg Tate. The insights are funny and poignant, with Mavis Staples gushing of how she sang with her idol Mahalia Jackson and The 5th Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis tearing as they see their performances on a monitor for the first time. At one point, singer Gladys Knight confesses she was overwhelmed by the sea of people who met her when she took the stage.

In Ms. Knight and Summer of Soul’s estimation, this was definitely a sea of change–and of love.

The film has been released by Searchlight Pictures, Hulu and Onyx Collective. It is now playing in theatres and streaming on Hulu.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.