by Chris Connor
While Woodstock is still a household name and an iconic festival featuring performances from the likes of Santana, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, one of the other concerts of 1969 taking place The Harlem Cultural Festival was not given its dues and failed to see the light of day until this year ,with footage remaining unused for over half a century. This festival acted as a black counterpart to Woodstock with some of the finest Blues and Soul artists of the era taking to the stage and delivering astounding musical results and it is truly a travesty that these performances haven’t been unearthed until now.
Compiled by Questlove of The Roots, the film while of course covering the performances of the festival ,acts as a social commentary on a period where racial tensions in the US where at their peak in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and anti- Vietnam War protests. The film manages to channel the furious energy the nation was feeling and celebrate the voices and political power of the artists as well as a reminder their sheer talent and is a love letter for the genres and artists featured.
Where to start with the performances themselves ? Some of the all-time Funk, Soul and Blues acts feature and it is hard to whittle it down into highlights so high is the quality level. Stevie Wonder and Sly and The Family Stone in particular bring a ferocious energy with other notable sets from Gladys Knight and The Pips and Nina Simone. From a pure quality standpoint this film rightly should be in discussion for greatest concert films there is no slip from any of the artists and perhaps the only quibble could be that some artists aren’t given an opportunity to assert themselves with so many featuring.
In many ways Summer Of Soul feels painfully relevant now with race continuing to be a major issue in the US. The way the archive footage and interviews are interspersed with the concert footage is meticulously done and heightens the performances themselves. Some of those interviewed include artists from the festival like The Staples Sisters, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder as well as those in attendance and fans like Lin Manuel Miranda.
Summer Of Soul really does a phenomenal job in dissecting this part of American history and acting as a joyous celebration of a festival that should have received its share of the limelight some time ago. It is a terrific glimpse at some of Blues, Soul and Funks finest artists at the peak of their powers while acting as a glimpse at a very turbulent period in American history. It is shocking that the concert footage even with some of the huge names involved, failed to attract any interest from media at the time of the recording and it does appear the black nature of the event was to blame for this. In spite of this the power of the music still lands over 50 years on from the events and will hopefully a new audience and introduce new fans to some of these timeless artists.
Summer of Soul is available to watch on Disney Plus now!