The summer of 1969 was historic in many respects: humankind first set foot on the moon, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village startled the nation, and Woodstock—a festival in upstate New York—altered popular culture and music forever. In New York City, the Harlem Cultural Festival uplifted over 300,000 people; and yet despite also being filmed, the festival—which featured stars such as Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone—never became the household legend that Woodstock has. The concert footage drew no interest from distributors and languished in obscurity until it was recently rediscovered—by none other than hip hop artist Questlove. Summer of Soul is his edit of the event with new interviews and commentary on the summer of ’69.
What’s fascinating about Summer of Soul is how it documents cultural issues coming to a head in 1969 through the lens of a single music festival. Yes, it’s true that the music was great: Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King—all legends. Alongside these great artists, Questlove mixes American music with oral history, blending national news with the mundane, overlapping songs with interesting stories or bits of forgotten history relayed by someone who was there in the moment.
The film is like a dream that catches the texture of everything going on in one important window of time. Between the despair over the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, frequent police brutality, all paired with the fear that gripped Black Americans in the wake of Vietnam, the cultural history shines a light on the times. And, just as important is the feeling of hope represented by that moment. This history is what makes Nina Simone’s performance of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” so poignant. It makes Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder’s jams all the more hypnotic and ecstatic.
If you’re still wary of going to the movies this summer, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is worth a watch.
Summer of Soul is streaming now on Hulu.