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Film Review: Summer Of Soul

Director:    Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (AKA Questlove)

Cast:    Stevie Wonder, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jesse Jackson, Chris Rock, Tony Lawrence, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln, Mavis Staples, Moms Mabley

Rating:    PG

Running Time:    117

Australian Distributor:    Searchlight Pictures / Hulu

 

Director Questlove ( Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) has gathered some fabulous footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival Concerts held during the summer of 1969. What is amazing about Summer of Soul  his hip, happy, and hot documentary — is that the concert was professionally filmed and then stored for 50 years. Nobody ever saw the footage as it was never televised or shown in theatres. It’s a great mystery as to why it was shuffled into obscurity. Some say the reason was that the concerts were held during the same period as Woodstock and that suffered from a lack of notoriety. But Woodstock happened over a period of three days, and the Harlem Festival occurred during six weeks of the summer of 1969 and drew about 300,000 happy, music-loving souls.

Most of the patrons were residents of Harlem who had never had a concert like this held for them. It was a revelation to see the great African-American musical stars in person. Most of the stars were legends in their own right, and some were soon to become musical icons. What a treat it was to see and hear these musical giants perform right before their eyes!   

Many of the stars in the film have survived through the years. Some are no longer with us, and some rode off into obscurity. But what they had in common was great talent, soul, and a connection to their audience. And now, what a treat it is for us today to be able to see some of the stars at the beginning of their careers when they were youngsters. Musical lovers of today’s generations may not be familiar with some of the musical acts, but they won’t be able to deny their connection to the beat and the rhythms that keep the audience’s feet tapping.

On display in the film is a 19 year-old Stevie Wonder, slim and handsome, knocking out the hordes of onlookers who are swaying to his tunes.  It’s also a hoot to see young Gladys Knight, in her early 20s, whip up the crowd with her group The Pips. And who can forget the comic turn of Moms Mabley and her distinct Black humour that makes every ethnic group convulse in laughter? 

Individual artists such as guitarist B.B. King, Mavis Staples, and Abby Lincoln fascinate the crowd with their distinctive musical interpretations. They are joined on stage by the Latin rhythms of Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto and the distinctive sounds of Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann. Wow, what a lineup!

The incomparable singer and activist Nina Simone stirs up the crowd as do Sly and The Family Stone and The 5th Dimension.  The film is a priceless record of the great stars of the ‘60s and beyond. It is also a testament of how music can be a healing power during our times of strife and a salve to the wounds of the past.

This is a terrifically entertaining musical film and one of the best documentaries of the year. It should be in the running for an Oscar® nod this coming year.

 






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