There is a true blockbuster movie playing this summer. And I’m not talking about Black Widow.
In the summer of 1969, a major music and culture festival was held in the state of New York. The event featured a “Who’s Who?” of musical giants, playing to a huge, captive audience. It was one of the greatest concert events held in the rock era. And I’m not talking about Woodstock. The tale of this festival is lovingly told in the film Summer of Soul.
Thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (drummer for The Roots), we are now able to see this incredible music festival, which took place in New York City during the same summer as the legendary music festival at Woodstock, known by nearly anyone who has explored music. The Harlem Culture Festival took place a mere 100 yards south, yet it was all but buried from common knowledge.
Like many, I have the same two questions: HOW did I NOT know about this event? And WHY on earth was it buried?
The most commonly held answer from the mainstream studios (read, mostly white executives of the time) was that making a feature out of this festival was not a viable option, due to a lack of marketability. They believed a festival featuring African-Americans playing to African-American audiences lacked the appeal of the everyday music fan. One needs very high boots indeed to wade through that level of bullshit.
Granted, I am looking at this from a retrospective point of view. Still, given the reverence offered to Jimi Hendrix for his performance at Woodstock, I find it hard to believe that musically open-minded people, regardless of ethnicity, would not find this festival every bit as compelling as Woodstock.
This film and the artists it features (Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone among them) explains about 80 percent of the music I saw in my parent’s collection throughout the 70’s. Soul, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Gospel … it’s all here in one form or another. The sound is top-notch, and the picture is above reproach.
One would think a film of this quality would have at least rated some private viewings, which no doubt would have triggered a massive “word of mouth” advertising campaign. But that didn’t happen, so the film and all its brilliance sat in a basement for decades.
I’ve said it before about other music, but this is a series of performances better heard and seen than spoken or written about. Everything in this film holds up wonderfully 50-plus years after the fact. And unlike other summer movie blockbusters, it will be difficult to remember every scene and line, which makes repeated viewings not only a necessity but a genuine pleasure.
See this film. You can go to the theater or stream it at home on Hulu.
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
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