About midway through what may be the highlight of “Summer of Soul” — a concert movie that has so many highs it’s hard to pick just one — the editors cut from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples raising the classic gospel song “O Precious Lord” all the way to heaven to a young man listening in the crowd. He’s lanky and hip behind his shades; until two minutes ago he probably thought of gospel as his grandma’s music. Now he stands there, stunned at the sonic glory pouring from the stage, his mouth agape and then slowly turning up in a smile of utter delight.
To someone watching the movie, it may be like looking in a mirror. “Summer of Soul,” the record of a concert series that took place in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park a half century ago, instantly vaults into the pantheon of music documentaries on the strength of its performances and the passion and intelligence of its assembling. This isn’t just a time capsule of some of the best Black music acts of mid-20th century America. It’s a snapshot of Black America itself, still reeling from the deaths of Malcolm and Martin and in the midst of transitioning from the civil rights era to a radical new spirit of identity and confrontation. Which is not to say there wasn’t space for celebration. The movie itself is proof of that.
The Harlem Cultural Festival, all six weekends of it, was captured on video by producer Hal Tulchin in 1969, while Woodstock dominated the headlines and men landed on the moon. Unable to sell the project to the networks (thus the film’s subtitle “… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”), Tulchin let the 40 hours of footage gather dust for decades and, while reclamation efforts by various filmmakers were underway as early as 2006, it took Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, co-frontman of The Roots and “Tonight Show” bandleader, to get the project across the finish line. The results are in theaters and on Hulu and they are not to be missed.
Who’s on the bill? Who isn’t? Stevie Wonder at age 19, smack-dab between “Little Stevie” and the mature artist of “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book,” both 1972. (Wonder performs a lengthy and fiery drum solo — who knew?) B.B. King making his guitar Lucille scream the blues. David Ruffin, newly free of the Temptations, singing “My Girl,” and the Fifth Dimension in matching uniforms performing “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In.” Gladys Knight and the Pips doing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And we’re just getting started.
The director has augmented the performance footage with newly filmed interviews featuring both the musicians and Harlemites who attended the concerts. The former tell us what it meant to be up on that stage — the Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis seeing their mainstream pop sound embraced by Black audiences was huge for the group — while the latter tell us what it meant to be there. Women in their 60s recall being teenage girls sneaking out to see their idols; Musa Jackson, who was 4 years old in 1969, says “This is the first time I’d seen so many of us. It was like seeing royalty.”
Thompson and editor Joshua L. Pearson cut skillfully, sometimes exhilaratingly, between the performances, the interviews, and archival footage that powerfully conveys where the world and America was that summer, and how “Negro” culture was morphing into Black Pride — what critic Greg Tate calls “a new super-Blackness.” (Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault is on hand to describe the unwillingness of her New York Times editors to update their language.) Newfangled Afros mix with old school processed ‘dos in the crowd. Asked about the moon landing of June 20, festivalgoers are witheringly concise in their description of how little the historical event impacts their lives on Earth.
There’s a jazz section, with power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, among others, and high priestess Nina Simone introducing “Young, Gifted, and Black” as a communal sing-along. A propulsive, percussion-heavy Latin day features performances by Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto and modern-day commentary from Sheila E. The gospel section is practically its own movie, the Edwin Hawkins Singers taking the crowd to church with their new hit “Oh Happy Day,” featuring Dorothy Morrison, and sets by the Staples Singers and Clara Ward leading to the mountaintop of that Mahalia-Mavis summit meeting. Their duet, two of the greatest voices this country has ever heard, is intertwined with the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s recollections of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final moments before his assassination, and the sequence’s cumulative emotions are almost too much to bear.
Those gospel performances connected the audience in Harlem with a shared history; for the way to tomorrow, you had Sly and the Family Stone. Even this early in the band’s career, there’s some suspense involved. “Just because they introduce Sly doesn’t mean he’s there,” says Darryl Lewis, who was 19 when he went to the concerts with his friends, guys who worshiped the choreographed dance moves and slick matching outfits of the Motown mafia — the Temps, the Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Lewis remembers that he and his friends looked on in confusion as Sly’s band took the stage. A white guy was the drummer! Women were playing the horns! The group wore whatever they felt like! Then Sly lit into “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People” and suddenly Lewis and his crew didn’t care about Motown style anymore. “Summer of Soul” captures a moment of the past that was launching itself into the future in a way that feels wholly relevant and inspirational to the present. The movie is a gift.
SUMMER OF SOUL (… OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)
Directed by Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson. Starring Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs; also streaming on Hulu. 117 minutes. PG-13 (some disturbing images, smoking, brief drug material).