Sundance 2021 Review: Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Written by Taylor Baker


Pictured Above: Questlove shooting on location.

SYNOPSIS: Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the untold story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring never-before-seen performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone and scores of others. The unreleased footage that was
shot that summer sat in a basement for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost – until now. Summer Of Soul is a joyous musical celebration and the rediscovery of a nearly erased historical event that celebrated Black culture, pride and unity.

REVIEW: While it is a mouthful Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the first of what I hope will be many Questlove jawns. The assemblage and footage of this summer day from 1969 encompassing the Harlem Summer Festival is deft if not masterful. The content itself touches on the incomparable. This is live music filled with love. Or love music performed live.
Your choice.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Questlove in which he describes why the film was given it’s title and what the trouble is with it’s perceived lateral relationship to Woodstock.

“That footage was definitely the butterfly wing, if you will, that told me it’s
probably in the best interest of this project for us not to call this ‘Black
Woodstock.’ I wanted to call this Black Woodstock, initially, only because so
many culturally Black creations get appropriated, and claimed, and lost to
revisionist history. For the Hal Tulchin quote: It was one of the very last things
that we found. Hearing him describe how heartbreaking it was that this was
unsellable, it was then I felt like we should find a proper title that did it justice.
Not just forever connect it to something that came after it, but received more
credit than it”

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

At one point early on there’s a comment made that they threw the Harlem Cultural Festival for free to keep the residents of Harlem from setting fires that summer. I couldn’t help but frame that comment against the content of the film. The dozens of times that the musicians sweating furiously in suit jackets or long dresses and tights in the sweltering heat lit everybody up with their music. It’s clear that this festival was a metaphorical fire, and I really like the quick unobtrusive way Questlove alights that thought into the viewer, or at least this viewer.

Picture Above: Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson co-performing “Hear my cry, hear my call / Hold my hand lest I fall”

If you, like me seek a transcendental moment in musical documentaries. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I found two such moments in the picture myself. The first of which is when Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson co-perform “Hear my cry, hear my call / Hold my hand lest I fall”. When Mahalia is standing center stage her mouth agape roaring beautiful notes, the camera framed squarely on her face. Something stirring occurs, a beauty that traverses the image conveyed by sound but can’t be properly explained, only experienced. The second moment comes when Stevie Wonder amidst performing Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day plays a stirring keyboard solo that none of my words could do justice.

For anyone who doesn’t offhandedly know who Gladys Knight, Babatunde Olatunji, or Sly & The Family Stone. This documentary might feel as if one is being taken lovingly by the hand through Questlove’s personal and professional inspirations and like going through a friends older siblings CD’s as a kid, a musical awakening. Clear voiced and sure of itself, Questlove’s Directorial Debut has all the makings of a film that’s distribution rights purchase might come with a first look deal. With an eye for presentation like this it’s unlikely this is the last we’ll see of him.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) premiered at Sundance 2021 and has at least one second run screening left on 1/29/21. However, it’s quite likely to win some festival awards, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it included on the Sundance 2021 Festivals Wednesday Award Screenings. At the time of this publishing it does not have a distribution deal or release date.

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