In the summer of 69, a knockout line-up of black musical greats including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and Sly and the Family Stone performed at a nine-weekend festival. The gigs were filmed and the cameraman later pitched the project as a “black Woodstock”, but no producers were interested and the footage was consigned to a basement. One man’s rubbish is another man’s gold. In Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), musician and record producer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson has turned those precious rolls of film into the documentary of the decade. Summer of Soul both celebrates and contextualises a one-of-a-kind happening.
The musical icons we see on stage have no interest in appearing cool. Simone talks to the crowd like a nervy host welcoming honoured guests. Both the 19 year-old Wonder and the then 57 year-old Jackson captivate with their spasmodic, whirling dervish moves. As for Sly Stone, he can’t stop smiling.
It’s tempting to indulge in What ifs. What if Jimi Hendrix (who requested to play at the festival but was turned down) had been welcomed into the fold? Would his affiliation with rock have put the festival on the map or was cultural erasure inevitable, because no whites were central to the proceedings?
Either way, Questlove plugs us into the radical politics of the time, via modern-day interviews, newsreel clips and way more shots of the audience than you’d expect.
Part of the fun of watching most 60s and 70s music docs lies in spotting the famous figures in the crowd (Mama Cass shaken and stirred by Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop, Mick Jagger awed by Aretha Franklin as she records the live album, Amazing Grace). But there are no big names in Harlem, just a sea of ecstatic black and brown faces. We’re invited to scrutinise these everyday people, whose dreams and opinions are as important as anything happening on stage.
A view, repeatedly expressed, is that in 1969 more attention was paid to sending men into space than ending poverty or racism. Fifty years on, how much has changed? Ponder that, while Nina and her friends touch the sky.
In cinemas from today and on Disney+ from July 30. 117mins, cert 12A