Combustible Celluloid
With: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Jesse Jackson, David Ruffin, Mavis Staples, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Max Roach, Tony Lawrence, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Questlove
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material
Running Time: 117
Date: 07/02/2021

Summer of Soul (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Take You Higher

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Questlove makes his directing debut, bringing this phenomenal footage to the world's eyes for the first time. Like so many other Black stories that have been swept under the rug, Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) not only tells that story, but gives a hint of its powerful impact at the same time. In the summer of 1969 when Woodstock became a legend, the Harlem Cultural Festival provided an alternate place to go, and a friendly place for Black faces. The free concert took place over six weekends and included a legendary slate of acts. Sly & the Family Stone, one of my favorites, gives an electrifying performance, as does young Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, and more. Seen here in full ebullient glory, nightclub singer Tony Lawrence was the host and promoter.

The music is remarkably varied, from the radio-friendly pop of the 5th Dimension, to jazz, blues, gospel, and calypso. For some reason, the entire concert was filmed, and then the footage was stored in a basement, untouched for fifty years. There's a lot of ground to cover, and Questlove tries his best to intersperse backstory and music, sometimes to the detriment of the music. (He needed a full three hours for this, like the 1970 Woodstock movie.) But it's impossible not to be moved by surviving musicians watching their performances, moments of pure exaltation on stage, and revelations like the fact that this concert meant more to Black folks that summer than the moon landing; they were excluded from the latter, but wholly included in the former.

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