Summer of Soul (2021). Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Summer of Soul (2021)

"Don't wait for approval from your neighbor, because your neighbor might be waiting for you." - Sly Stone 

Full of energy, excitement, and, yes, love, Summer of Soul is one of the best documentaries to come around in years. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, this debut film by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is a must-see.

By now, everyone knows the story of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Sundance hit. Over six weeks in 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a music fest held in Mount Morris Park in New York City. Filmed on a shoestring budget, the Black Panthers provided security for the musical celebration. Acts for the Harlem Cultural Festival included Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, and the Chambers Brothers.

Summer of Soul's production background is as fascinating as the festival itself. The concert footage was locked away (literally in someone's basement) for fifty years, unseen by the world. Fortunately, Questlove restored the concert footage, interviewed the people behind the production, and expertly weaved together this excellent documentary. Summer of Soul is a present to the world and, for soul music fans, something to be eternally grateful for.

There are so many beautiful things happening within Summer of Soul. First, there are magic moments when the artists from the festival react to seeing the footage for the first time since the concert. The emotion that sweeps over them tugs at the heartstrings, and it is apparent just how meaningful this event was to the performers and attendees.

The fact that the entire Harlem Cultural Festival was peaceful and orderly (in contrast to other festivals at the same time, including Woodstock and Altamont) is a testament to the community of Harlem. It is impressive to see just how this concert came together.

But most of all, one has to sit back and enjoy the superb musical performances of these legendary performers. Everyone will have their favorite act from Summer of Soul, and the styles were undoubtedly diverse. B.B. King delivered his trademark blistering guitar riffs and bluesy growl. The 5th Dimension showcased their soaring vocals. And Gladys Knight and the Pips (one of my all-time favorites) offered smooth dance moves, combined with a polished soul sound that was simply magic.

But for me, the musical highlight of Summer of Soul happens when Sly and the Family Stone arrive, strolling on stage one at a time as if they just rolled out of bed. This racially diverse band of musicians dressed and acted differently from any other group of the time. They wandered up, slowly got in tune, and then delivered their trademark psychedelic soul sound with a knock-out punch, taking the concert to an altogether higher level.

It is remarkable to see just how amazing Sly Stone was back then. Sly's swagger, talent, and command of the stage is a wonder to behold. Watching Summer of Soul shows the influence he must have had on other groundbreaking acts to follow, such as Prince and Parliament Funkadelic.

The Summer of Soul is an outstanding documentary about a culturally significant event. The messages and history that it brings to our generation are essential. It is also a thrilling concert film with explosive performances from some of the most dynamic musical acts of the 1960s. Summer of Soul is as good as it gets. (A-)

Directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Starring Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mavis Staples, Blinky Williams, Sly and the Family Stone, and The Chambers Brothers
Genre: Documentary

Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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