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Questlove Takes Us Back to the “Summer Of Soul” (Review)

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Competition’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is the filmmaking debut from Roots drummer extraordinaire Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and one of the year’s most exhilarating films.

In the summer of 1969, over 400,000 attended the Woodstock festival in New York State. That event is well documented in every respect, with a legendary film, album releases, and books to dissect every aspect of the cultural revolution.

But that same summer, a series of music concerts were held in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York, that became known as “Black Woodstock.” The Harlem Cultural Festival occurred every Sunday from late June to late August of 1969 and, unfortunately, did not capture the zeitgeist in the same manner.

Concert promoter Tony Lawrence had teamed up with the New York City parks department that year to put on these concerts. The lineups were spectacular. The combined attendance was nearly 300,000. Some footage was aired on New York television that summer in hour-long specials, but has otherwise been lost to history. Until now, that is.

Questlove was given access to professionally shot footage that had languished in a basement for nearly 50 years. He smartly chooses to bring some of those incredible performances back to life in full. And while one film can barely scratch the surface of what it must have been like to be there, it is a remarkable time capsule of Black excellence.

There are absolutely incredible performances from Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the 5th Dimension among many others. The film intercuts the archival footage with surviving members of musicians who performed and, almost more importantly, people who were originally there in attendance.

While this will be available for at-home streaming (and I highly recommend it for follow-up viewings), I have to suggest seeing this on the big screen with the loudest possible sound for maximum enjoyment.

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will be released in select theaters and also begin streaming on Hulu this Friday, July 2.

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