“Summer of Soul: (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), July 4, 2021, Hulu. 1969 marked a momentous year for popular music. Woodstock brought 400-500,000 fans together for the concert in rain and mud. It became both a free concert and a hugely successful movie that sanctified the moment. The months prior to Woodstock had seen a series of free concerts in Harlem that brought together many of the icons of gospel, blues, jazz, Motown, pop, Latin music, and the newly emergent sounds of folks like Sly and the Family Stone. Unlike Woodstock, these events, with crowds totaling roughly 300 thousand viewers, never made it to the screen. The concert film languished in a vault for almost 50 years after no studio agreed to make the film. Then The Roots’ Questlove set about transforming the footage into a documentary.
The late 1960s were, to say the least, fraught times. War, assassinations, riots, cultural transformations, new movements, new realities abounded. The Black Panther Party provided security at the event, not the NYPD. A man walked on the moon, but concert goers were more concerned with jobs, housing, health, community safety, the crisis of drugs and the challenge of racism. And they said so in so many words. This is, not surprisingly, a more political film than Woodstock.
Yet it, too, was a transformative moment and event, announcing new musical directions. Little Stevie Wonder vanished, transformed into the man who would shake the musical world in two short years. His drum set is a revelation. Mavis Staples filled in for Mahalia Jackson when the latter’s voice went off, rock and roll with a west coast psychedelic edge arrived with Sly’s uniquely diverse band even as Gladys Knight and the Pips lit up the stage. And, led by Nina Simone, concert-goers pledged resistance—even unto death–to white authority, only weeks after welcoming “blue-eyed soul brother” Mayor John Lindsey to the show. Yes, contradictions abound.
So why didn’t the film get made? Racism, fear of the political fallout undoubtedly figured in the decision. But these concerts were also a different beast than Woodstock. The concerts spread over several months. Some of the musical changes embedded in the films may not have even been understood as there at the time. This wasn’t one giant splash; it was spread out and more diffuse over the summer. It changed the people who were there. But was it thought of as the same cultural magnitude as the upstate festival?
In any event, this is a great film about that moment and the musical/cultural/political changes embodied in it. Be sure to see this one.