April 8, 2022

Summer of Soul (2021)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Questlove
Stars: Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King

What it's about. The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival took place on Sundays between June 29 and August 24. It was a free festival in Harlem, New York City. Performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Hugh Masakela, the 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, the Chambers Brothers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and many others. Most of the acts are musical, though a few comedians and preachers also appear on stage. The performers are predominantly black, and the crowd seems almost entirely black, aside from a few white news reporters.

The festival coincided with Woodstock, also held in New York in August 1969. The first Moon landing occurred on Sunday, July 20, one of the festival dates. Festival attendees are interviewed about the landing, but the response is surprisingly negative, e.g. "There's nothing on the Moon. Why not end poverty first?"

All of the concerts were filmed in color, in high quality. Attempts were made during the 1970s to turn the footage into a film or television special. Those efforts did not succeed, and the footage resided in an obscure basement for many years until its 2004 discovery by Joe Lauro. Fortunately, the videotape was well preserved. The film rights were acquired by Robert Fyvolent, and he worked with others, including director Questlove, to make the present film. Lauro's role is unmentioned in the film, not even as a thanks-to in the credits.

Archive footage of the festival, both the stage and the crowd, is interspersed with modern "talking head" interviews of concert attendees and performers.

How others will see it. Summer of Soul was a great success. It won Best Documentary at the Oscars and BAFTA as an opportunity for inclusion. The film streamed on Hulu and has been seen by many, given its 9.7K user votes at imdb.com. The user ratings are also very high at 8.0 out of 10. Women over 45 grade it highest (8.5).

The user reviews exult at the advent of footage for such an important yet long-forgotten festival. Close reading reveals frustration at the talking heads and their voiceovers.

How I felt about it. The obvious problem with Summer of Soul is the talking heads. The best known music documentaries from the 1960s are Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, and The T.A.M.I. Show. None of these films have talking heads, and don't need them.

We have Wikipedia. We can look up who the people on stage are. The afro hairstyle, the Black Panthers, and the replacement in print of Negro by black, are all potentially interesting topics, but they are dealt with in cursory fashion and are mostly irrelevant to the festival.

The director had the gift of 40 hours of filmed festival that nobody had ever seen before. It included full performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and "the rest," meaning that some acts were and are more important than others.

Of course, we do see concert footage, but not in a single case do we hear an entire song without interruption. It is all excerpts, interspliced with modern-day talking heads. The one talking head we would like to hear from is Sly Stone. He is apparently still with us at age 79, though reportedly impoverished and isolated. Family Stone members of lesser interest are interviewed instead. Stevie Wonder does appear as a talking head, but very briefly.