There are enough goose bumps in the festival documentary “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” to regret that the film can only be seen in the stream in Germany for the time being. For example, when Nina Simone takes the piano on the stage in Mount Morris Park, in the middle of New York’s Black Quarter, where that summer of 1969 around 50,000 people gathered on the hills and meadows on each of the six weekends of the Harlem Cultural Festival. When she ends the basic scheme of her “Backlash Blues” with a chord that thunders for seconds and makes it very clear: Miss Simone is here, and she won’t put up with anything tonight. Or when Stevie Wonder climbs into an ecstasy of funk motifs on the Clavinet, which brings the power of gospel out of spirituality into worldliness. Or when guitarist Sonny Sharrock packs all of the anger and pain of what they call “the black experience” in America into an outbreak of free chord splinters.
In which The Summer of Soul is not a concert film like “Woodstock”, even if the press material speaks of the “black Woodstock”. There are historical parallels. That same summer, a bunch of semi-business-minded hippies hosted the Woodstock Festival, which later gave its name in America to the generation that went down in history in Europe as the ’68. There, on a meadow near the village of Bethel, rock music made its debut in the eyes of the general public, that soundtrack of the youth and protest movement, which until then was still a counterculture.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was much better organized. However, only a few local broadcasters were interested in it. And in contrast to Michael Wadleigh’s documentary “Woodstock”, which became a classic of its genre, the production of the Harlem documentary by Hal Tulchin silted up in the failed financing of the post-production. And so around 40 hours of film material was stored for decades in the basement of the filmmaker, who died in 2017.
In this turning summer, the new black self-confidence manifested itself on and in front of the stage
The drummer, music producer and in America above all as head of the studio band of the show master Jimmy Fallon, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson processed the material for this almost two-hour documentary. At a recent press conference he looked a bit like an archaeologist who found the scroll in a pyramid that will now solve some of the riddles of antiquity. What this festival meant back then, and what this film now makes clear once again, is summed up by a contemporary witness who was at the festival at the beginning: “That was the moment when ‘Schwarz’ was born.” Another festival-goer was still a schoolboy at the time and remembers that what stuck in his mind most impressively was the fact that he had never seen so many black people in one place in his life.
Questlove gives the audience a major role in the film. The second main role is not played by the music, but by the historical context. With a brilliant feeling for the rhythm in the cut, the film interweaves historical recordings and interviews with contemporary witnesses in the festival appearances. A terrific find is the opinion poll that a television reporter carried out with the festival guests on July 20th. On that day, the NASA Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. But in Mount Morris Park Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin and Gladys Knight & the Pips played. That was the high nobility of the Motown label, who at that time also carried their political consciousness onto the stage against the resistance of the label boss. The audience, however, seems to be very united when the reporter asks whether they are not impressed by the moon landing. You remain polite, but the bottom line is unanimous: Why is the government sending three men to the moon instead of dealing with the problems on this planet? There really are enough people who urgently need help.
What runs through the whole film is a very keen political consciousness that they call “woke” in America today. Perhaps one could also compare the two summer festival films in this way. After all, the opposite of “woke” in American is “sleeping”. And that is also the difference between “Woodstock” and “Summer of Soul” https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/. “Woodstock” is a really phenomenal concert film, which the political moment of the youth of 1969 on a few footnotes like Country Joe McDonald’s “Gimme an F …” or Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of the national anthem on his overdriven Stratocaster guitar. And yes, you could watch the film half asleep and still have understood everything.
Nina Simone puts a maximum of blazing anger in her appearance
“Summer of Soul” doesn’t let up. The subtitle alludes directly to Gil Scott-Heron’s key song of the black protest movement “The Revolution will not be televised”. Again and again Questlove analyzes this turning summer, when the new black self-confidence at the end of the civil rights struggle decade in music, in poetry, in fashion, in activism and in the body language of the people on and in front of the stage.
You can hear and see from the musicians that they understood this moment very well. Some of them like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight or Stevie Wonder tell in the film what an incredible experience it was back then to look into 50,000 black faces from the stage.
The climax is finally Nina Simone, who puts a maximum of blazing anger in her appearance. Finally she reads “Are You Ready Black People” by David Nelson from the Last Poets, which is nothing more than a call for armed and unconditional resistance.
It may be that the goose bumps would have been more numerous if the film had shown the performances without interruption and hadn’t constantly steered the audience’s groove onto the political line. But it would not have done justice to the summer of 1969. So “Summer of Soul” will remain the document of a moment in music history that was so much bigger than pop and therefore achieved so much more.
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – USA, 2021. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Camera: Shawn Peters. Editor: Joshua L. Pearson. With: Nina Simone, Glady Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Hugh Masekela. Disney, 117 minutes.