Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

summer of soul or when the revolution could not be televised poster 2021 movie
9.0 Overall Score

Great performances, great looking, good context

Little indecisive if it is a documentary about a movement with music or a concert movie with a message

Movie Info

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

Studio:  Mass Distraction Media/Concordia Studio/LarryBilly Productions

Genre(s):  Documentary/Musical

Release Date(s):  January 28, 2021 (Sundance)/July 2, 201 (US)

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

summer of soul or when the revolution could not be televised sly and the family stone harlem

Sly brings the style!

On June 29, 1969, a massive festival concert started in Mount Morris Park in Harlem.  The performers highlighted Black musicians and creators and those in the community.  With groups coming in from all over the world, the concert was a melting pot for new ideas, new styles, and a new sense of pride…but an old story about a forgotten piece of history.

Directed by Questlove, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a musical concert documentary.  It features footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featuring events which ran from June 29, 1969 to August 24, 1969 and featured multiple days of performances.  The documentary was won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

I love the Woodstock movie and like the anti-Woodstock movie Gimme Shelter.  Both represent a period of change for American and how it was taken.  I (like many) wasn’t aware of a similar festival held in Harlem until Questlove’s documentary…and it is a great example of not only the same ideas and creative nature of Woodstock (the festival was nicknamed “The Black Woodstock”), but it is a way to show the secondary divide in America even at a time when America was already sharply divided.

summer of soul or when the revolution could not be televised mavis staples mahalia jackson

One of Mavis’s personal favorite career moments

Part of the problem is evident in the fact that the concert receives such little coverage when Woodstock is always heralded as a flashpoint in American culture.  The Harlem Cultural Festival also features fantastic acts who have stood the test of time and also an important coming together of a marginalized community which appears to have been very peaceful and organized (Woodstock was peaceful but a mess) despite largely having negative portrayals of Harlem…it wasn’t deemed “significant” which isn’t true…but it wasn’t “significant” to the people making the decisions in the world.  It was very significant to those who attended it.

The documentary is solid and looks fantastic, but the film has a bit of an identity crisis.  Due to its length (it is under two hours), it feels a bit more of a highlight of the event mixed with context.  If the film had been longer, it would have been nice to have more full length performances, and it still could have brought in the cultural significance.  Here, it feels more like a story about the culture and less about the music (which isn’t a bad thing), but it also feels like with so much footage existing of this event that there should have been an accompanying feature with more full length artist performances…but I do worry that people would then just skip the historical aspect of the event and just watch the musical performances.

summer of soul or when the revolution could not be televised nina simone

…to be Young, Gifted, and Black

Visually, the film is another great example of footage that has held up over the years.  Much of the footage was found just in a storage room where it had sat for years, and it is great that it was rescued for both the performers (both Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers and Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension seem moved to see it again) and the significance of it.

While I hope for an accompanying documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a solid and worthwhile documentary to seek out.  It has wide appeal for both its music and history buffs and looks great.  I think Questlove’s first outing is a good one and hope that he takes on another documentary someday (I would say a musical documentary, but I don’t want to pigeonhole him).  See the Summer Love and see another music festival that unfortunately didn’t get to shine when it was fresh.

Related Links:

The 94th Academy Award Nominations

Woodstock (1970)

Gimme Shelter (1970)

The Last Waltz (1978)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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