Summer of Soul

Contestants for the best concert movie of all time queue up every time a newcomer steps into the ring. Not least the immaculate doc Jazz On A Summer’s Day which is getting a restoration and re-release this summer.

But there is also Jonathan Demme’s filming of Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz with The Band, the ground-breaking Monterrey Pop and, of course, 1970’s Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock which has long stolen the counter-cultural limelight. 

So much so that you’ve probably never heard of the festival they called “The Black Woodstock”. Mostly because for 50 years, all the footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival gathered dust in an archival vault, never shown, barely seen. Until now.

And, dusted off and cleaned up, the results are astonishing, giving us what, I’m thrilled to report, is the best concert doc I’ve ever seen. 

The line-up alone is mouthwatering: Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone… every time someone new steps up, the screen tingles with excitement.

This isn’t merely a film of what and who went on that stage in Mount Morris Park in Harlem that hot summer, but a social document of the time and the place, of a moment in black history and world history, after the seismic assassinations of the 60s, when billions put a man on the moon yet millions starved in ghettos, when the New York Times was persuaded to stop printing the word “negro”.

Putting all the footage and history together – and getting participants to watch themselves and reflect on their performance 50 years after the event – is director Amir Questlove Thompson, the distinctive and distinguished music historian and drummer from hip hop outfit The Roots and well-known as the house band leader on Jimmy Fallon’s nightly TV show. He’s now made one of the films of the year.

Every appearance is contextualised and clarified, with guests such as Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda popping up to explain the importance of the Latin sound to Harlem, or members of the Fifth Dimension recounting how they came to have a huge hit with The Age of Aquarius from the controversial musical Hair. The recollections are as humorous and touching as they are illustrative and sobering when you reflect on how this black-run event was literally written out of history by the more famous, whiter, hippy concert in a field just 100 miles up state.

Anyway, forget the politics and just rejoice in the music, which is rhapsodic, soulful, funky and so powerful that it me tapping, nodding and, eventually, right out of my seat. I would have given anything to have been there – thanks to Summer of Soul, I feel like I really was. About time, too.

(Out July 16)