Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul BLOG Thursday 22nd July 2021


Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul review – the best concert film ever made?

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

This Sundance award-winner is an absolute joy, uncovering a treasure trove of pulse-racing, heart-stopping live music footage (originally captured by TV veteran Hal Tulchin) that has remained largely unseen for half a century. While Mike Wadleigh’s Woodstock and the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter have long been considered definitive documents of the highs and lows of 1969 pop culture, Summer of Soul makes both look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that was somehow written out of the history books. Capturing Stevie Wonder at a turning point in his career, Mavis Staples duetting with Mahalia Jackson (“an unreal moment”, says Staples) and Nina Simone at the height of her performing powers, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s feature debut intertwines music and politics in one of the best concert movies of all time.

Summer of Soul: New film revives lost ‘Black Woodstock’ gig series.

The summer of 1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the Moon. Woodstock becomes the defining moment of the counterculture movement. And Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and BB King play to a combined crowd of more than 300,000 people at The Harlem Cultural Festival.

Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a feature documentary about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which celebrated African American music and culture, and promoted Black pride and unity.

Two of these events have adorned the covers of 20th Century history books ever since. The third has been all but forgotten.

Until now.

A new award-winning documentary, The Summer of Soul, aims to right what it believes to be a serious cultural wrong; the fact that what could have been the “Black Woodstock” has been largely ignored for more than half a century.

Film review: Five stars for the ‘timely’ Summer of Soul.

Questlove is best known as the drummer for The Roots, currently the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s US talk show. He also DJ’d at this year’s Oscars and is a professor at New York University, where he is an expert in Black Music History. He was shocked that he had never heard of this event, one that he now believes to be of huge importance.

Speaking passionately from New York, the star explains how in 2017, out of the blue, two film producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, presented him with 40 hours of footage from this festival, which took place over six Sundays from June to August 1969, in New York’s Mount Morris Park.

He is keen to share the backstory, all of which was new to him.

“The Harlem Cultural Festival was an event thrown by two gentlemen, Tony Lawrence [who booked the acts] and by Hal Tulchin [who filmed it],” he tells BBC News. “They somehow managed to gather some of the mavericks of their day. We’re talking about Stevie Wonder. Nina Simone, Sly and Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Olatunji, Hugh Masekela, Edwin Hawkins Singers, BB King, comedians, politicians, everybody was there.”

The reason why Questlove and so many others have never heard of this series of concerts, is what happened, or rather did not happen, next.

“The event is preserved professionally on tape and not one producer or outlet is interested in seeing the footage or making it worldwide-known or distributing,” he continues. “So, what winds up happening is that this film just sits in the basement for 50 years.”

While Woodstock was immortalised in an Oscar-winning documentary, helping to make it famous around the world, The Harlem Cultural Festival was only broadcast in the form of two one-hour highlights shows on a local New York TV station and never repeated.

The 50-year basement Questlove was speaking about belonged to Tulchin, who filmed the event. The TV veteran was approached over the years by potential documentary makers and the footage lodged with the US Library of Congress, but nothing came of it. Then shortly before his death in 2017 he signed a contract for all 40 hours to be used by the team behind Summer of Soul.

The footage is remarkable, showing everything from the joy of Stevie Wonder playing a drum solo under an umbrella in a downpour, to the intensity of the spoken word section of Nina Simone’s performance, where she asks the audience if they are “ready to smash white things, to burn buildings?”.

The dayglow colour schemes on show throughout the concerts also add to the whole vibrancy of the documentary.

‘Gave me goosebumps’

Questlove says that despite never having directed before, he was chosen because the producers viewed him as a storyteller.

“I’d say it took me five months, just to live with the footage. Five months of just constantly having these monitors in my house in every room, my house, my kitchen, my bathroom, my bedroom, I kept it on 24-hour loop. That’s all I watched. And I kept notes on anything that gave me goosebumps. And what I wound up doing was curating it, like I curate a show or DJ gig.”

Summer of Soul, which won the 2021 Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize, is a lot more than a concert film though. It uses the event to examine the extent to which 1969 was a turning point for black identity.

“Up until that point we were ashamed to be called African,” explains Questlove.

“If you really wanted to call somebody an insulting name in the black community, you called them African, and then be prepared for a fight. That’s how deep this kind of self-hate was embedded in us since, you know, since centuries ago. And so, what winds up happening is in 1969, there becomes a paradigm shift.”

He adds: “A new generation comes and they just have a new way of thinking and it’s not like the Martin Luther King generation. They are the Black Panther generation and they’re embracing, they’re calling themselves black. I’ll say the seeds of Black Joy start in 1969, with our expression, our style, our fashion, our music, our creativity.”

In one fascinating sequence from 20 July, a vox pop of the almost entirely black crowd reveals a total disinterest in the moon landing, which was happening at the same time. Mind you, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and David Ruffin from The Temptations were on-stage, demonstrating somewhat fancier footwork than Neil Armstrong.

The other seismic cultural overlap was with the Woodstock Festival, which took place from 15-18 August. Only one act played both events, Sly and the Family Stone. “He did the Harlem Cultural festival two weeks before as a rehearsal,” explains Questlove. “I was debating whether or not I should mirror both performances to show how identical they were.”

Questlove’s research also revealed that that one Woodstock hit was turned down by the Harlem Cultural Festival, “James Marshall [Jimi] Hendrix,” he laughs.

“I don’t know the exact reasons why he got a no, but he got a no. What he actually wound up doing was becoming the official after-party for at least three of those weeks. He and blues great Freddie King toured a bunch of Harlem clubs. So yeah, we could have had, we could have had Jimi Hendrix too.”

The drummer-turned-director believes that there are many more black cultural touchpoints which have been erased from history and are now ready to be brought into the spotlight. He hopes to play his part.

“This last week alone, I’ve been made aware of five to six other events that are almost just as equal to this event, that the world has never heard about. One particular American university, just let me know, ‘We have 20 hours of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And I’m like, ‘What?'”

“So yeah, I feel as though hopefully this film will be a smoke signal,” he says. “This might be my new destiny, and I didn’t even know it yet. But you know, I welcome it.”

He cracks a huge smile, before repeating: “I welcome it.”

Summer of Soul is in cinemas from Friday 16 July and on Star on Disney+ from Friday 30 July.r on Disney+ from Friday 30 July.

Current Worldwide Box Office $1,873,700

Mark Kermode



  1. Aaron Neville – Tell it Like It Is
  2. Al Green – Let’s Stay Together
  3. Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand The Rain
  4. Aretha Franklin – Respect
  5. Arthur Conley – Sweet Soul Music
  6. Barrett Strong: Money (That’s What I Want)
  7. Barry White – Can’t get enough of Your Love, Babe
  8. Billy Paul – Mr & Mrs Jones
  9. Brothers Johnson – Strawberry Letter 23
  10. Diana Ross – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  11. Earth, Wind & Fire with the Emotions – Boogie Wonderland
  12. Edwin Starr – Stop Her on Sight (SOS)
  13. Etta James – At Last
  14. Funkadelic – One Nation Under A Groove
  15. Gladys Knight and the Pips – Midnight Train To Georgia
  16. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes – If You Don’t Know Me By Now
  17. Isaac Hayes – The Look of Love
  18. James Brown – It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World
  19. James Carr – The Dark End of the Street
  20. Johnnie Taylor – Who’s Making Love
  21. Judy Clay & William Bell – Private Number
  22. Luther Vandross – Never Too Much
  23. Martha & The Vandellas: Dancing In The Street
  24. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
  25. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – Your Precious Love
  26. Mary Wells – My Guy
  27. Maze featuring Frankie – Back In Stride
  28. Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
  29. Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness
  30. Percy Sledge – When A Man Loves a Woman
  31. Ray Charles – What’d I Say
  32. Rufus & Chuka Khan – Ain’t Nobody
  33. Sam & Dave – Soul Man
  34. Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
  35. Sly And The Family Stone – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again
  36. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – Tracks of My Tears
  37. Stevie Wonder – Superstition
  38. Teddy Pendergrass – Love TKO
  39. The Commodores – Still
  40. The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There
  41. The Impressions – People Get Ready
  42. The Main Ingredient = Rolling Down A Mountainside
  43. The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself
  44. The Temptations – My Girl
  45. Wilson Pickett – In The Midnight Hour

And I have to Add Wilson Picket – Warm and Tender Love

The front pages all report the PINGDEMIC as theCovid-19 App has gone out of control and has instructed loads-a people to isolate, causing staff shortages in all businesses. Consequently supermarkets are running out of stock as staff shortages affect deliveries.



The most wasted of all days is one without laughter. – Nicolas Chamfort.


Happiness is….sweet soul music!


Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.


Love is…when she still excites you after all these years.


A time to watch Woodstock (1970) Film, Budget $600,000 Box office $50 million…A time to watch Summer of Soul (2021) Film.


22nd July

1376 – The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin leading rats out of town is said to have occurred on this date.

1965 – “Till Death Us Do Part” debuted on England’s BBC-TV.

July 22, 1844 — You have to feel a bit sorry for the Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who was born on this day. He became famous as the man who could never say the right thing about anyone or anything – because he was always getting his words mixed up.

For example, in a reference to Queen Victoria, he called for “three cheers for our dear old Queen.” Unfortunately, it came out as “three cheers for our queer old dean!”

He described the Heavenly Father as “a loving shepherd” – or, at least, he tried to. It came out as “the Lord is a shoving leopard!” And he once asked: “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”

But there is little direct evidence that Spooner, who became the Warden of New College, Oxford University, ever said these things. He did admit later to one Spoonerism, as the sayings became known, which was a reference to the hymn “Conquering Kings Their Titles Take”, which he delivered as “The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take.”

It is thought that this slip of the tongue prompted students and perhaps fellow academics to make up, probably out of fun, other misquotes and attribute them to Spooner.

Examples are “It’s roaring with pain” for “it’s pouring with rain.” Or “that’s just a lack of pies” for “pack of lies”. Happily, there are those who have a “plaster man” to overcome the problem, even if they haven’t got a “master plan”.

Perhaps in defence of the hapless academic, the Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations lists only one authenticated Spoonerism – though it is not the one he admits to. Discussing the impact of “the rate of wages,” Spooner is quoted as saying: “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer.”

Justified or not, there is no doubt that the weight of mockery will press hard upon Spooner whenever a vocal mix-up is delivered. Though a twist on the accepted Spoonerism formula can work to the speaker’s advantage, as Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson demonstrated in 1952.

Protestant preacher Norman Vincent Peale objected to Stevenson because he had divorced his wife several years earlier. To which the candidate responded: “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”


Click the picture to read more.


©2021 Phil M Robinson