Released: 19th November, 2021
Seen: 11th February, 2022
Well, the time has come for one of the more interesting months of the year, that being the month where I desperately try to catch up on all the Oscar-nominated films that I somehow missed because they all seem to be released around the time the nominations come out. No idea how this is going to work for this year, hopefully, we’ll be able to get through everything but that’s why you’re going to see a whole bunch of 2021 films being reviewed fresh in 2022… fortunately, the first cab off the rank is the absolutely brilliant documentary Summer of Soul (…or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
Summer of Soul (as I will be referring to it for the rest of this review) brings the audience into Harlem in 1969 during the Harlem Cultural Festival that ran for several weekends and was a glorious display of major black artists of the day. This took place around the same time as the much more widely known (AKA mostly white) Woodstock but the Harlem Cultural Festival was so much more political and powerful than anything that had been seen. For over 50 years this festival was largely forgotten by history, the footage of it lost to someone’s basement… until Questlove somehow got a hold of that footage and created one of the best concert films in recent history.
It should go without saying but you should absolutely seek out black voices talking about the impact of Summer of Soul, they will be able to give you a much more important view of it than I can. I can merely point to what this is like as a film and not as a cultural milestone (Though god damn, it is absolutely an important film in every way). As a film, Summer of Soul is the kind of glorious concert documentary that takes the material and elevates it into something truly special that should be put up on a pedestal.
With a combination of archival footage that, again, literally was found in someone’s basement and interviews with performers and attendees, Summer of Soul begins as just your standard Concert film showing the performances that took place over several weeks. They’re some genuinely great performances by some absolutely amazing artists captured in glorious detail and the crispest audio I’ve ever heard. Honestly, the fact that it sounds this good considering when it was filmed and where it was stored is nothing short of an actual miracle.
Slowly, as Summer of Soul progresses, the film starts slowly pouring in the political reality of the time in a way that’s so gradual and effective that it honestly took me until they were cutting in clips of attendees pointing out how stupid it was that people were going into space when they should be feeding the hungry (the more things change, the more they stay the same). This beautiful slow build of political messaging culminates exactly where you think it would, with Nina Simone taking the stage and just destroying as only Nina Simone could.
That balance between the performance and the politics is what makes Summer of Soul truly special, linking these joyful moments with the harsh reality going on just beyond the borders of the festival paints a picture that couldn’t be told in a more engaging way. You might come to hear a glorious version of Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day by Stevie Wonder but you’ll stay for the powerful messaging about what it was like to be a black American in the last 60s and how a lot of what was going on back then resonates with today… again, the more things change.
Questlove might have only directed a few music videos before but the brilliance of Summer of Soul is almost entirely onto how he perfectly stitches everything together in order to paint this broad picture that provides incredible context to every single song while also just making a damn fine festival film to enjoy. If you just want to see a whole bunch of soul musicians at the top of their game performing some of their best songs to an audience that is clearly loving them then you’re going to get that, but you’re also going to get a solid education out of it and it’s one you absolutely need to fully appreciate this.
Probably the most powerful moment comes at the end of Summer of Soul, the final 10 minutes that’re almost there just to point out how this footage was so damn hard to find and how it was almost lost. It’s the moment it becomes clear how we almost didn’t get this film, how we almost didn’t get to have this piece of history recorded and the importance of making sure we keep this history alive. Could there be a more perfect time to have a reminder that there are some parts of history that we not only need to have records of but to teach people so we don’t forget? No matter how uncomfortable it might be, this stuff demands to be seen and thank goodness we’re able to meet that demand.
Summer of Soul sets the new standard for music festival films, anyone who tries to make one from here on out will have no choice but to try and at least match what this film does and something tells me that’s not going to be an easy task. It’s absolutely brilliant, filled with some beautiful songs that will have you uncontrollably bouncing along to the beat (or as close to the beat as you can humanly get) and an absolutely essential history that you need to learn because there will be a test at some point. It might have taken 50 years, but I’m glad that this part of the revolution was finally able to be televised.