Calgary Herald

REVELATORY TESTAMENT TO UNSUNG `BLACK WOODSTOCK'

Great music doc Summer of Soul is an exhilarati­ng time capsule

- ANN HORNADAY

Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson makes a spellbindi­ng directing debut with Summer of Soul (...

Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a revelatory documentar­y that exhilarate­s and dismays in almost equal measure.

In 1969, New York producer and impresario Tony Lawrence mastermind­ed the Harlem Cultural Festival, a summer-long live music series that would be held over six weekends in Upper Manhattan's Mount Morris Park (now also known as Marcus Garvey Park). Sometimes called the “Black Woodstock,” the concerts ultimately drew more than 300,000 people to see acts ranging from The Staple Singers to Hugh Masekela; from Gladys Knight & the Pips to Sly and the Family Stone; and from Nina Simone to the 5th Dimension.

With its jaw-dropping lineup and epochal timing on the heels of one of the most tumultuous years in American history, the Harlem Cultural Festival was important on myriad levels, material and symbolic. But although it was filmed for a local news station, that footage sat untouched for 50 years before being discovered and given to Roots co-founder Thompson as the raw material for his first directoria­l effort. What he has created with Summer of Soul transcends a mere chronicle of a legendary concert — which, frankly, would have been entertaini­ng enough.

Instead, he pulls the lens back to examine an event that had artistic and generation­al significan­ce that could be justifiabl­y compared to the three-day concert that took place the same summer in upstate New York, but was never allowed to achieve similar traction in the collective psyche. In this layered investigat­ion, not only does Thompson celebrate the artistry of the most influentia­l musicians of their era but he interrogat­es the deeper meaning of how public memory is created and — in this case — casually erased.

Interviewi­ng attendees who came to the Harlem Cultural Festival as young people, as well as the performers themselves, Thompson immediatel­y plunges the audience into the action in Summer of Soul, which begins with Stevie Wonder delivering a drum solo that Thompson — a drummer himself — proceeds to use as a recurring motif. The film gains irresistib­le musical momentum as the giants just keep coming: The Chambers Brothers singing Uptown. The 5th Dimension singing their famous Aquarius/let the Sunshine In medley (complete with cosmic choreograp­hy). Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson delivering a mesmerizin­g rendition of Precious Lord, Take My Hand. The Pips dancing in impeccable early-1960s form behind Gladys Knight before ceding the stage to the far more laid-back but no less electrifyi­ng vibes of Sly and the Family Stone.

It will surprise no one that Sly wants to take us higher. So does Summer of Soul, which captures the ecstatic moment of creation while exerting its own euphoric pull as a restoratio­n of Black culture at a particular­ly vibrant turning point. (The year 1969, one observer notes, is when the Negro died and Black was born.)

Using impressive­ly comprehens­ive video footage taken by television producer Hal Tulchin, Thompson creates a sensuous time capsule in which the colours and textures of the era come back to vibrant life, from the oranges, yellows and lime greens of the musicians' costumes to the sartorial flourishes of the crowd itself. Summer of Soul even evokes the distinctiv­e aromas of a gathering that one eyewitness calls “the ultimate Black barbecue.”

Summer of Soul would be valuable if only because it preserves such a sublime moment of Black expression, pleasure and autonomy. But Thompson cleverly interweave­s present-day interviews into the archival images, creating an illuminati­ng palimpsest of equally moving and eerily timely narratives. Whereas most filmmakers — especially musicians — would let the performanc­es play uninterrup­ted, Thompson carefully overlays interviews with critics, observers and sometimes the artists themselves, to create thumbnail histories of everything from New York politics and the moon landing (which also happened that summer) to the intersecti­on of Black and Latin culture in Harlem and the role of gospel music in coping with collective trauma (“We didn't have therapists,” Al Sharpton notes. “But we did have Mahalia Jackson.”)

The result is something akin to cinematic hypertext, and thanks to Thompson's steady hand, the brief but deep dives are richly rewarding.

As electrifyi­ng as the stage performanc­es are in Summer of Soul, the film's most moving moments arrive when the people who were there watch Tulchin's footage for the first time: The 5th Dimension's Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Mccoo are brought to tears recalling their reception from an audience that hadn't always accepted them as “Black enough,” while Musa Jackson — who was five years old when he attended the Harlem Cultural Festival with his parents — breaks down when he realizes that the memories he nurtured for five decades have finally been validated.

“I'm not crazy,” he says toward Summer of Soul's conclusion. He's laughing and crying at the same time, and so are we.

 ?? PHOTOS: CONCORDIA STUDIO ?? Nothing short of spellbindi­ng, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a musical documentar­y with deep cultural and historical implicatio­ns that has been painstakin­gly crafted by first-time director and musician Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson.
PHOTOS: CONCORDIA STUDIO Nothing short of spellbindi­ng, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a musical documentar­y with deep cultural and historical implicatio­ns that has been painstakin­gly crafted by first-time director and musician Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson.
 ??  ?? The documentar­y is a tribute to the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that featured some of the most important artists of the era.
The documentar­y is a tribute to the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that featured some of the most important artists of the era.

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