Documentary Review: “Summer of Soul (or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised”)” remembers Harlem’s “Black Woodstock”

It’s nigh on impossible to single out highlights from the joyously upbeat concert film, “Summer of Love (…Or When the Revolution Could NOT be Televised).”

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. sit, in tears, as they see their performance with The Fifth Dimension for the first time in over fifty years.

Here are Gladys Knight and the Pips at their peak, just about to blow up and just dazzling.

Stevie Wonder makes the leap from “Little Stevie” into adulthood, resetting his career, live on stage in the summer of 1969.

Mavis Staples of The Staples Singers joins her idol, the legendary Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, sharing the mike as they sing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” in tribute.

Abbey Lincoln, B.B. King‘s blues, The Chambers Brothers, Max Roach‘s jazz, Hugh Masekela‘s Afro-accented jazz, Ray Barreto‘s Latin/Afro jazz, comic Moms Mabley, Sly and the Family Stone and the regal Nina Simone all appeared on that stage in Mount Morris Park, an era-defining series of shows in Black music, polished, beautifully filmed and preserved for posterity.

As more than one interview subject makes clear in Roots star and “Tonight Show” bandleader Questlove’s film, Woodstock got all of the musical attention that summer, when America landed on the moon and the ’60s wound down. But the show its documenters, then-and-now, called “Black Woodstock” (a working title of this film) was epic in its own way, with its singularly-impressive line-up playing for a sea of mostly-Black New York faces, 50,000 at a time.

Questlove is a tad disingenuous about what he’s presenting here. The film plays down the fact that this was an entire summer of festivals, not a “Black Woodstock,” putting all these acts on stage over a weekend or whatever. And the title of his film is even more misleading. These shows WERE “televised” on New York PBS later in the summer of ’69, concerts filmed and edited together under director Hal Tulchin.

But he’s right about it being mostly forgotten, that “nobody would believe it happened” save for the long-stored film footage resurrected here.

“Summer of Soul” uses its well-chosen interviews with festival attendees who included journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and festival participants from singers and band members to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to give us context and a sense of the significance of the concerts.

“Negro” was evolving from “African American” to “Black,” Black fashion from sharkskin suits to leather and dashikis, “Little Stevie” to “Stevie” and Black America from protesting for Civil Rights to bracing for “dealing with white America at its worst” as Richard Nixon took power.

The audience, after a decade of turmoil, was already “radicalized,” if not-quite demoralized from the high profile political murders and riots of the era. The concerts, backed by the city of New York under its mayor, one of the last of a now-extinct political animal, a “liberal Republican,” went off without a hitch, despite having both Black Panthers and the NYPD providing security.

The shows take us back to a day when music was a more unifying force in American life, with many of the shows — featuring The Edwin Hawkins Singers (“Oh Happy Day”) and other Gospel acts — taking on a religious fervor, soul and funk acts sharing the stage with jazz, blues and Gospel ones.

And festival organizer, the “lounge singer” and “a hustler in the best sense,” Tony Lawrence, who also emceed the shows, gets his due. “He talked a big game, and he delivered.”

Questlove, billed as Ahmir-Khalib Thompson here, has made one of the most entertaining concert films in years, a piece of Baby Boomer nostalgia that is thrilling and moving, jaw-dropping (those Pips get me, every time) and toe-tapping, and a history lesson, all rolled into one.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material. 

Cast: Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Luis Miranda, Chris Rock, Tony Lawrence, Hal Tulchin and Gladys Knight

Credits: Directed by Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson. A Searchlight/Hulu release

Running time: 1:57

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.