' ' Cinema Romantico: Summer of Soul

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summer of Soul

There is a moment in “Summer of Soul” when Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., who up until this point have simply been reminiscing about their performance at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park, sit back and watch that performance. And we watch them watch their own performance. If it sounds tedious, it is anything but, as revealing as it is moving. The subtitle of “Summer of Soul”, “… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”, has already been disputed, if not outright refuted, by Greg Mitchell, not only noting that CBS and ABC aired primetime specials that same year recounting the event but how the footage shot by Hal Tulchin was not, contrary to the doc’s introductory title card, necessarily buried or forgotten, just never made into an official movie, for one reason or another. Even so, that only two years ago the 50th anniversary of the other 1969 music festival was commemorated with an extravagant 38-CD box set, Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, while the Harlem Cultural Festival has since 1969 mostly been limited, as Mitchell notes, to a few YouTube clips, it is not a stretch to say one has been limitlessly mythologized and the other confined to American history dustbins. And so in watching Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. watch themselves, they become like most of the rest of us, seeing this for the first time.

“Summer of Soul” was directed by Amir Thompson, better known as Questlove, leader of The Roots and musical director of the current Tonight Show Band, but also a renowned D.J., a profession demanding an ability to dig in the crates, as they say, unearthing music made rare by time and unavailability. In essence, “Summer of Soul” is one enormous act of digging in the crates, combing through Tulchin’s footage and then cohering it into a finished product, one eschewing demarcating exact dates and times, preferring to let organizer and host Tony Lawrence’s joyfully outrageous rotating wardrobe delineate time’s passing instead, and to elicit the sort of sensation conducive to a lyrically faulty memory, where a whole summer in retrospect seems to take place in the space of a single afternoon. 

And if Questlove undoubtedly could have harnessed this material into one of the great concert films, a la “Monterey Pop”, given the fest’s conspicuous erasure from American histories, he instead makes a documentary, examining rather than simply re-living, to give the fest its rightful due. So, too, does he forgo a superfluous overview of Black American history, rather using the Harlem Cultural Festival to demonstrate what it meant to be a Black American at this time and in this place, and then innately tying those themes to the music. Sometimes the performance renders that connection for him, like Nina Simone holding the park in the palm of her hand, and sometimes he deploys talking head interviews, not around the songs but within them, which further illuminate those songs instead of mucking them up. McCoo and Davis Jr. explain the 5th Dimension was often viewed by radio as not being Black enough, transforming their riveting performance of “Let the Sunshine In” into a manifestation of the Reverend Jesse Jackson at another point in the documentary imploring the crowd to decree “I’m Black and I’m proud.”

Questlove, though, does not limit his interviews to just the festival’s performers. He invites spectators to recount their experiences as well, underlining how the festival was as much about those in the crowd as it was about those onstage. “As far as I could see,” says Musa Jackson, who just a child when he attended the festival, “It was just Black people”, brought home in the movie’s exhilarating colors, where in our modern era of drab movie photography both the predominance of Black skin and the performers’ clothes positively pop. The anecdote of Darryl Lewis, who was 19 when he attended the fest, about he and his friends being, quote-unquote, Temptation guys until they saw the Sly and the Family Stone and then became, quote-unquote, Sly guys is a personal reminiscence making plain the changing demographics and sounds of music. 

Indeed, in “Summer of Soul”, Sly and the Family Stone seem to transcend all boundaries entirely, in their lineup’s diversity (“The white guy is the drummer!” exclaims Lewis), in their psychedelic clothes, in their sound. America has long been in need of a new National Anthem, as much in a melodic sense as a historical one, and seeing them perform “Everyday People” in Mount Morris Park made me realize it should move to the top of the list. “I mean the cat really insecure a little bit,” Jimi Hendrix was heard to say on Woodstock – Back to the Garden, “so they call girls groupies and they call girls this and they call passive people hippies and blah blah woof woof on down the line.” I wrote that quote down when I read it because it mesmerized me so much, a low-key denunciation of categorizing people and walling them off, and it came back to me hearing Rose Stone sing “And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby”, succinctly, poetically distilling America’s creed down to a single line.

Though given its time and place, at the nominal end of the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem Cultural Festival sometimes feels like a shining Black American frontier, epitomized in then-NYT correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault recapping her ultimately victorious insistence that the Paper of Record transition to using “Black” instead of “Negro”, there are nevertheless numerous inherent reminders in “Summer of Soul” that not all American frontiers are created equally. I don’t know if it was kismet or simply shake-your-head reality that the moon landing took place one of those Sundays in Harlem, captured for posterity through newsreels in which solemn white reporters interview skeptical blacks. If they can’t understand why a lofty national goal would need to take the form of a moonshot rather than giving aid to struggling neighborhoods, they also see the Cultural Festival itself as their Apollo 11. Not for nothing does Questlove tag this lunar-minded passage with Stevie Wonder’s performance of “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da Day”, his keyboard solo sounding more cosmic than any Saturn V rocket. Different strokes for different folks.

The music in “Summer of Soul”, though, is not just cosmic but spiritual too. Edwin Hawkins notes that many Black people had turned away from the church, leaving them unsure where to go in the greater scheme, though the documentary argues Mount Morris Park is exactly where they went, gospel music as therapy, to paraphrase the Rev. Al Sharpton in talking about Mahalia Jackson who duets with Mavis Staples on the gospel standard Take My Hand, Precious Lord. Questlove cuts between the performance, conveyed in close-up, like the barrier between pew and pulpit has momentarily been eradicated, where Jackson truly seems to have opened up a channel to Providence, and wider shots of the stage, where Jesse Jackson giddily bounces on his toes behind them, the Reverend as a member of the congregation, and shots of the crowd too, like a young man in thin sunglasses whose jaw gradually goes slack in this stupefied sort of smile, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. You could watch a hundred concert documentaries and not see so magnificent a manifestation of music as religious experience. 

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