COVER HED: An Unseen Summer of ‘69
COVER SUB: Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ in Snowmass
What: ‘Summer of Soul’ Drive-In, presented by Aspen Film
Where: Snowmass Town Park
When: 8:45 p.m. Sunday, June 20
How much: $50 per vehicle (VIP packages also available)
‘Summer of Soul’ will be released in theaters and will begin streaming on Hulu on Friday, July 2.
The Woodstock music festival has been so cherished, lionized, analyzed and well-documented in pop culture since 1969 that the word itself is all you need to conjure countless iconic rock ’n’ roll images, hippie fashions and larger themes about its political era and the Baby Boomers.
In contrast, what some have called the “Black Woodstock,” hosted in Harlem that same summer, has left almost no cultural footprint, has been erased from history and forgotten. A new documentary seeks to right that wrong, bringing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to vivid, celebratory life on-screen.
“Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which won both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for documentary at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January, will play theaters nationwide and stream on Hulu beginning July 2. It gets a drive-in sneak preview screening on Sunday, June 20, at Snowmass Town Park.
The film tells of how 300,000 people attended the festival over six weekends that summer in what is now Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, creating what one attendee calls “the ultimate Black barbecue.” It offers a front row seat for enthralling performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone (the 2021 version of which plays the Jazz Aspen June Experience June 26 and 27).
“Nobody has ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival – nobody would believe it ever happened,” one attendee says early in the film.
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the Roots drummer and “Tonight Show” bandleader making his debut as a filmmaker, “Summer of Soul” is a powerhouse piece of entertainment that also serves as a work of historical excavation and a correction of Black erasure.
The film addresses the fact that the festival has not made it into the history books while also adroitly placing the concert series within its moment in history — the upheaval of race riots, Vietnam protests and the heroin epidemic as well as the evolution from the old-school civil rights movement to the new Black nationalism and ascendancy of the Black Panthers (who provided security for the festival). The funk, soul and gospel sounds on stage in Harlem were inextricably a part of the freedom struggle.
“It was like we were going to war, and we were propelled on a wave of music,” Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr. says in the film.
Mayor John Lindsay, a supporter who attended the festival — dubbed “our blue-eyed soul brother” by host and producer Tony Lawrence — had supported it in hopes of keeping the peace in Harlem on the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder.
The emotional heart of the film is a moving section in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson tells the story of King’s last moments from the stage and recalls the hymn he requested after his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, “Precious Lord,” which leads into a torch-passing moment between the legendary Mahalia Jackson and a young Mavis Staples singing it beside Jackson.
“That was the time of my life,” Staples recalls in the film.
The social context, the filmmakers knew, had to be up front in “Summer of Soul.”
“It couldn’t just be a context-less film,” producer Joseph Patel said in an interview Tuesday. “We wouldn’t be doing the music justice or the story justice.”
It also speaks to the current moment and the movement for Black lives without directly addressing the parallels between 1969 and now.
“When George Floyd was murdered and the subsequent uprising happened around the country, I think it was very clear that we didn’t need to do that,” Patel said. “It was obvious to people now, if it hadn’t been before. So we didn’t really need to draw a line very overtly. People would be able to see it for themselves.”
The film opens with a young Stevie Wonder — dressed in a brown raincoat and yellow ruffled shirt, on the precipice of the 1970s breakthroughs as an artist and activist — playing an extended drum solo.
“I don’t think a lot of audiences — unless you’re a deep Stevie Wonder fan — has ever seen him play drums before,” Patel said. “There’s just all sorts of little gems like that.”
Once post-Baby Boom generations start seeing “Summer of Soul,” expect a spike in downloads and streams of music by acts like The 5th Dimension and Herbie Mann, who are captured in showstopping sets.
Some of the performances the film captures are astounding. Nina Simone performing a defiant “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” for instance, and Sly and the Family Stone at the height of their powers doing a call-and-response on “I Want to Take You Higher,” the Chambers Brothers doing a propulsive “Going Uptown to Harlem,” which serves as a frenetic scene-setter early in the documentary.
With Questlove at the helm, the film keeps an impeccable and propulsive rhythm going as it intercuts performances with recollections of attendees.
The filmmakers and editor Joshua L. Pearson whittled it down from 40 hours of unseen footage from the festival, which producer Robert Fyvolent found 12 years ago.
A college classmate had told him about this treasure trove of film from the forgotten festival, so he tracked down Hal Tulchin, who had filmed the festival on four cameras with plans to make a documentary or television special about it in 1969. But it had stayed in canisters at his Bronxville home for 50 years as he could not get anyone to finance or release a film.
“He had the footage right there in his house in his basement,” Fyvolent recalled. “I convinced him that this was the time to get this film out.”
The reason was clear why Tulchin’s Harlem project was thwarted as the entertainment industry and press embraced Woodstock.
“It was just racism,” said Fyvolent. “There were three networks at the time, and none of them were interested in the material. Over the years he was discouraged that was the case. He knew this footage was important.”
Tulchin died before he could see the film released but was gratified to see Fyvolent and Questlove pick up the mantle, the filmmakers recalled.
“He had a lot more faith in people than he should have, maybe,” Patel said.
Once they digitized the 40 hours of old film, Questlove kept the footage running on a loop at home as he conceptualized “Summer of Soul.”
“He was like a kid in a candy story and finding thee morsels in the footage,” producer David Dinerstein recalled, noting how Questlove went granular — recognizing obscure session musicians in the backing bands — and also clearly saw the arc of the big picture story.
Among the gifts of Tulchin’s footage is that he kept a camera trained on the crowd throughout the festival, capturing the celebration of community in Harlem, the high fashion and dashikis and afro styles of the day and the joy of the multi-generational crowd. The film itself is remarkably preserved, offering crisp sunlit visuals of this dream of an experience.
“We’ve joked that, in a way, the fact that nobody wanted to make this for so long meant the reels were actually in really good shape,” Patel said.
The “Summer of Soul” creative team made the film during the pandemic, working remotely and in the stretch when live music performance was shut down. As the U.S. reopens, they’re hopeful “Summer of Soul” will soundtrack and fuel the rebirth at hand.
“I hope people get out of their cages and have a good time,” Fyvolent said. “In part, this movie is a celebration of community and of music — that there is power in community and power in song.”
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