In the summer of 1969, Sly and the Family Stone took the stage in front of a massive crowd at an outdoor music festival and killed with a funk/soul/psychedelic rock set highlighted by the showstopping “I Want to Take You Higher.” The group featured the charismatic and unpredictable and enormously talented frontman/keyboardist Sylvester Stewart, a white drummer and saxophonist, and Black females on piano, trumpet and vocals. They were revolutionary, and they were great, and they gave a performance for the ages.
And six weeks later, they’d do it again at Woodstock.
Some 50+ years after the fact, the Woodstock gathering in upstate New York remains the most famous, the most celebrated, the most legendary outdoor concert in modern history. But before Woodstock, on consecutive weekends in June, July and August of 1969, there was another memorable music festival playing about 100 miles away, at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, with all-star lineups including the aforementioned Sly and the Family Stone, as well as Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King, The Fifth Dimension, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and the list goes on and on. Whereas Woodstock was immortalized by an Academy Award-winning documentary, bestselling soundtrack album and countless anniversary celebrations, the concerts at the Harlem Music Festival were largely forgotten to history — until now, with the arrival of director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s brilliant and invaluable and stirring documentary “Summer of Soul.”
A local New York TV station broadcast highlights every Sunday night throughout the festival back in ’69, which was also filmed by the late producer/director Hal Tulchin for a possible network special or movie — but we’re told there was no commercial interest in a “Black Woodstock,” so the footage was boxed up and stored away.
Thank the cinematic and music gods it was never destroyed or lost, as “Summer of Soul” is an absolute found treasure of golden onstage moments, interspersed with interviews from participants such as Gladys Knight as well as attendees and cultural commentators, along with celebrity artists such as Chris Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda. One of the many highlights is when Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension (who have been married for a half century and look amazing) watch footage of themselves and the rest of the group onstage in Creamiscle-colored outfits, performing the “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” medley from “Hair” that became a No. 1 hit for them. They’re visibly moved, as McCoo recalls how important it was for them to play Harlem because a lot of people who had only heard them thought they were white.
“Summer of Soul” is filled with chills-inducing performances, whether it’s a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder jamming on the drums, the amazing Gladys Knight and those wondrous Pips telling us they “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” or the gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing a rousing rendition of their crossover smash hit “Oh Happy Day.” We often cut to medium and close-up shots of the fans, and what a beautiful crowd it is: men, women and children, clad in the garb of the late 1960s, having the time of their lives, grooving and moving and nodding and singing along with the incredible music emanating from the stage.
Thompson sprinkles in news footage from the time, reminding of us all that was happening in the summer of 1969, from protests in the streets to a man on the moon. Arguably the most compelling sequence in the film comes when Jesse Jackson talks about how “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was Martin Luther King’s favorite song and then hands the microphone over to Mavis Staples, who trades vocals with Mahalia Jackson. It’s a moment of pure glorious and authentic emotion and grace, equal to anything we’ve seen in “Woodstock” or for that matter any other concert film.
My only quibble with “Summer of Soul” is director Thompson’s tendency to cut away in the middle of a performance for a bit of historical context, whether it’s archival news footage or a quote from one of the participants or attendees. True, their insights are often moving and insightful, but it might have made for an even more incredible viewing experience had we been given the chance to see more of the numbers performed in their entirety, as they were witnessed by the crowds at the Harlem Cultural Festival in that unforgettable summer of 1969.