Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

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Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), what a treasure trove of spine-tingling musical goodies this film is. “Directed” by Questlove, whose role is really more curatorial and editorial, it’s a compendium of highlights from a series of six free concerts held on Sundays in Harlem from June to August 1969. Billed at the time as The Black Woodstock, after legendary festival which was being held upstate at around the same time.

There were around 40 hours of performances recorded, and most of it has lain abandoned in a basement ever since it was shot by producer Hal Tulchin. Tulchin’s plans to get it a wider distribution came to nothing. After all who’s interested in Stevie Wonder, BB King, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone… and on… and on?

The actual Woodstock film is a record of the events as they played out, but Questlove has opted to intercut the performances at the time with present-day recollections by people who were there either as members of the audience or as performers. This also allows him to editorialise a touch, drawing clear lines between the political activity of the day and more modern iterations of Black Power.

If that’s not your thing, and instead you’re here for the music, there are enough showstopping performances to satisfy even the most finicky. It’s worth it alone just to see Mahalia Jackson sing, and her later duet with Mavis Staples, so astonishingly powerful that at one point Jackson gives Staples the mike so Staples (no whisperer) can stand any chance of being heard alongside her.

Who else is good? Stevie Wonder, still transitioning out of his “Little Stevie” persona and towards Conscious Stevie. David Ruffin, of the Temptations, and his Mariah Carey-alike octave-straddling voice. Nina Simone, imperious, stoked, and giving the first performance of a new song she’d just co-written – Young, Gifted and Black. Sly and the Family Stone and his trans-racial, trans-gender (“a female trumpeter!” exclaims one contributor) outfit of groovers worshipping at the “Church of psychedelic soul.” Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach. Sonny Sharrock. Mongo Santamaria. Hugh Masekela. Ray Barretto. Gladys Knight and the Pips, still on their road to the top.

Nina Simone
Nina Simone debuts Young, Gifted and Black

Gospel is particularly well represented, and as well as turns from the blues-inflected Staple Singers, there’s the voodoo-inflected Professor Herman and the Voice of Faith, a remarkably expressive Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers, as well as the Edwin Hawkins Singers, whose hit record Oh Happy Day had made their name earlier that year.

Recalling those days, Adrienne Kryor, one of the Hawkins singers, recalls how she and her fellow members were ostracised by the Pentecostalist Church for having had a hit record, or possibly for dressing in lime green (I’m being facetious, though their costumes are retina-scorchingly bright).

Talking of which, the astonishing clean-up job on what must have been fuzzy old footage is remarkable. Whatever digital trickery has been deployed, it clearly works – this stuff looks like it could have been shot last week and puts the real Woodstock footage to shame.

Though it’s the old footage that’s the main source of interest, occasionally the recollections get the upper hand, like when Billy Davis Jr and Marilyn McCoo, watching themselves performing Age of Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In with The 5th Dimension, start to get a bit misty-eyed. “Everybody thought we were a white act,” recalls Davis Jr, and, as proof they weren’t, back in 1969 they lay on the gospel inflection and turn up the righteous power.

It’s one of many overpowering, tear-jerking moments in a scant two hours that have got, surely, to be a taster for a release of all the footage, cleaned up or as is.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, said Gil Scott-Heron in the song that inspired this film’s subtitle. Maybe not, but now this remarkable material finally can be. Without getting too religious – Praise be!

Summer of Soul – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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