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A Great Season in Harlem

Mass Distraction Media/Sundance Institute

Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (2021)

A documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 – when Woodstock took place upstate – “Summer of Soul” features previously unseen footage from this star-studded but mostly forgotten event, with performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips and many more.

It’s a shame that this also marks the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the beloved drummer of The Roots whose filmmaking instincts sadly do not even approach the level of his prodigious musicianship. The documentary promises great musical performances at minimum, but what transpires is a succession of performance snippets and talking heads ham-fistedly spliced in for contextual purposes. Any you-had-to-be-there joy and energy wear thin quickly due to the wearisome back-and-forth structural tedium. Historical background is important, but Questlove resists making any kind of editorial decisions that would improve the narrative flow, opting instead to preserve the appearances of comedians and ventriloquists of no real consequence.

“Summer of Soul” would have been better off as a “Woodstock”-esque concert film, even if that would necessitate more than doubling the film’s current length of 1 hour and 57 minutes. The clip-show-with-commentary approach does not do the performances justice. The only real highlights are when those who actually took the stage at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in the summer of ’69, such as The 5th Dimension’s Billy Davis, Jr., and Marilyn McCoo, are the ones doing the talking. Their wistful reminiscences about the peak period of their careers gives the sort of resonance that is otherwise lacking in the film.


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