There is much of black history that has been buried far too long, from Juneteenth to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. But it is finally coming to the fore, albeit belatedly disturbing. It is in this state of liberation that emerges “The summer of the soul” a moving and very entertaining piece of “lost images” that Ahmir Thompson skillfully woven into a glorious tapestry of a place and time when, as Reverend Al Sharpton artfully notes, it was “when the negro is dead and Black was born ”.
The stage is Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, where for six consecutive Sundays in the summer of 1969, America’s “Black Woodstock” took place in front of a massive crowd of “ordinary people” from upper Manhattan.
Run by singer-promoter Tony Lawrence and sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee, the festival showcased perhaps the finest collection of black and Hispanic artists our country has ever seen on a stage: people like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Barretto, The 5th Dimension, Hugh Masekela, BB King and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
And these are just a few of the acts featured in a gripping musical documentary in which surviving artists and participants remember a summer in which “black and white exploded into vivid color.”
Oddly enough, we were apparently never supposed to see it. For 50 years, images deteriorated in a basement because no one at the time wanted to make it the African-American version of Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock”. “It won’t sell,” was the official excuse.
Fortunately, Thompson – better known as “The Tonight Show” resident conductor Questlove – had a different idea. For months, he and his team traveled miles of rotten footage to resurrect the most memorable moments of “Summer of Soul”. The results are mind-boggling for any fan of the genre.
I can’t begin to recount the dozens of awesome moments. But the highlights are Nina Simone performing her haunting composition “When You Are Young, Gifted and Black”; Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson as a duet on MLK’s favorite anthem, “Precious Lord Take My Hand”; and Sly and the Family Stone bowing as “first two-tone soul group”.
Like Sly, Questlove wants to take us “higher”, and that’s exactly what it does with its masterful blend of unmissable musical history. And what a moment it was, as black musicians definitely moved away from the spit and polish of Motown (pictured here by Wonder and David Ruffin) to come true with songs that better reflected the reality of what it was like. to be black and brown in white America.
This challenge peaked on Sunday July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. While the Whites congratulated each other, spectators and some performers at that day’s festival were unimpressed. On the contrary, they were outraged by the billions invested in the space race that would have been better spent to lift impoverished Americans out of poverty.
Politics is a big part of “Summer of Soul”. How could it not be when the mood back then was one of frustration, as people of color watched their heroes slaughtered by assassins, from Kennedys to MLK and Malcolm X.
But what struck me was watching Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo look back at the footage of them and the three other 5th Dimension members performing “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” on June 29, 1969, in which they admit to be left yellow -and-orange, fringed yarns.
It was only a few weeks before the two embarked on a 52-year marriage, but what they remember most is the need to shy away from the label of “Blacks Singing Music. white “. The festival, they say, allowed them to do just that. One viewer, a child at the time, remembers having a crush on McCoo. Hey, buddy, join the club. How beautiful she was and still is at 77 years old!
Equally impressive is Questlove. Despite holding an Oscar for co-writing the soundtrack to Pixar’s “Soul”, the multi-talented musician had never directed a feature film before. You’d hardly know, given how skillfully he put together, restored, and quantified his labor of love by making “Summer of Soul” not just about music, but also a touchstone when “Negros” was released. ceased to be defined by whites. It’s quite beautiful and inspiring because “Summer of Soul” isn’t just about the music, it’s about letting you be yourself, resilient, black, and proud.
SUMMER OF SOUL
(PG-13 for some disturbing footage, smoking, brief drug stuff.) A documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson starring Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Hugh Masekela, BB King and Gladys Knight and the pips. In theaters and on Hulu starting July 2. Grade: A
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