Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director – Questlove
Stars – Roy Ayers, Ethel Beatty, Barbara Bland-Acosta
It is said that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t really there – or words to that effect. It was the age of Hippy Power, LSD and Woodstock! Designer retro fashion and dodgy memories suggest a Golden Alternative Age, and that it has been downhill since. But like all ages, it was, in reality, a time of mixed and complex narratives – the technological achievements of the 1969 moon landing occurring in the same cultural space as the Vietnam War, acute racial tensions and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy (1925-68) and Martin Luther King (1929-68). Racial issues are behind this wonderful life-enhancing documentary which has lain hidden, ignored and neglected for over fifty years.
While the short summer festival at Woodstock, the suburb of New York, has gone down in music and popular history as a reflection of the age, this film captures a potentially more significant event. Taking place over a series of summer Sundays in Harlem, New York, this festival of African American culture, Black Culture, was set against the racial tension of the time.
At a time of assassinations, political unrest, riots and worse, this festival bravely showed to the world and to the black community of Harlem, the power and potential of music as a cultural force. Some forty hours of footage were recorded at the time but were never shown to anyone, being of no interest to news channels, Hollywood or cultural commentators Yet here, in what is now the timeliest of manners, when taking the knee is still contentious and black English soccer stars are abused online, comes a celebration of race and culture with its own values. Spliced elegantly with insights by some who were there or have informed opinions, we can sit back and watch a feast of day-glow outfits and listen to music that sounds as fresh today as it did all those decades ago. What seems like a never-ending stream of performers such as Michalia Jackson, BB King, Stevie Wonder, and the wonderful and magisterial Nina Simone (1933-2003) take to the stage at this event. We are also reminded of how politicised many performers were – Nina Simone perhaps the most radical comes close to inciting violence – a telling insight into the times and reminding us of the political nature of this event. It was indeed the dawning of the ‘Age of Aquarius.’