Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): Things Come Together, by David Bax
Over the course of Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), multiple comparisons are drawn between Woodstock and the concert series the film depicts. There are even comparisons specifically between the footage we’re seeing and Woodstock the movie. One difference that’s not mentioned, though, is that Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 concert documentary was shot on celluloid (16mm, to be exact) and thus possesses a touch of the eternal. The footage excavated for Summer of Soul was all captured on video cameras. It’s got ghosting, artifacting, noise and other signifiers of the now antiquated format that make the images feel like unearthed relics. And Questlove, it turns out, was the perfect person to bring them back to life.
1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival featured a summer-long series of Sunday concerts by some of the biggest and best acts of the day, the majority of them Black and Latino, reflecting the demographic of the neighborhood and audience. It was a big event, co-sponsored by the city–the mayor even appeared on stage–and every performance was documented by a professional camera crew. And then all of that footage sat in boxes for half a century until Questlove got wise and decided to reassemble it into a boisterous yet poignant document of a time and place that still has plenty to say to us today.
With a few exceptions, Questlove prefers to allow songs to play out in full. We’ll watch the first minute to 90 seconds of a performance and then the song will continue under a section of the film devoted to memories of that artist and contextual information inspired by them. In a sense, then, each song (we rarely get more than one per artist) forms a chapter of Summer of Soul. Some tell their own story, like the touching one of how The 5th Dimension saw their successful appearance at the festival as a warm sign of approval from a Black audience that had often treated their poppy sound with trepidation. Others are grouped into larger sections; the Motown chunk, the Latin music chunk, etc. Perhaps the most moving of these is the gospel portion, which sees The Edwin Hawkins Singers, The Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson reaching greater and greater heights.
Maybe these gospel songs feel like the highlight of Summer of Soul because they’re the most in tune with what Questlove is trying to do here. At its core, the film is a visceral reminder of the sublime, communal, almost religious experience that live music can be. It transmits pure joy, even from the opening scene, in which we witness Stevie Wonder going absolutely nuts on a drumset.
But that joy is all the more potent for how closely aligned it is with pain. In addition to musicians, speakers like the Reverend Jesse Jackson articulate the ongoing trauma of the civil rights movement and the still recent wound of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Questlove contextualizes the festival audience amidst the poverty and systemic oppression many of them face but also amidst the camaraderie of family and close friends.
We know that Questlove is among our most prominent lovers of music. Summer of Soul–with its present day scenes of performers and attendees gazing up in awe at the footage the same way we all do in a movie theater–proves that he’s a devotee of cinema as well.