Summer Of Soul – Review

Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 57 minutes, Director – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The nearly forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival is brought back to life through restored footage, relived through interviews with attendees, performers and organisers.

Still grieving the death of Martin Luther King, a year on, being undisturbed by America’s fascination with pouring money into the moon landing, overshadowed by Woodstock, the neighbourhood community of Harlem gathered together to celebrate. Celebrate life, identity, community and most of all the music that united them over the course of six weeks in the searing summer heat of 1969. The event that allowed for this to happen? The Harlem Cultural Festival. For 50 years footage of Nina Simone, Steve Wonder, Sly And The Family Stone, Gladys Knight And The Pips and more performing the likes of pop, blues, R&B, soul and gospel has remained sealed. An un-viewed time capsule that’s now been restored and brought back to life.

Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson welcomes original attendees, performers and festival organisers to relive the event, talking about their memories and what it meant to them. “We needed something to reach out and touch us. We needed that music”. There’s a true sense of unity throughout the film. As you witness the connection that the artists have with the growing crowds, who on a number of occasions are performing just as much as those on stage. And that effect comes across to the audience in the cinema. You can truly feel the heat of the sun, yet the cool breeze that the event creates. Yet, the power of just how much this means to the Black community present at the time is proclaimed. Images relating to the large racial pressures and tensions of the time are backed by the infectious music, further demonstrating the effect that it had. Questlove truly shows the power that this event unlike any other had.


As Nina Simone sings To Be Young, Gifted And Black you can’t help but lean forward and pay as much attention as possible. Her voice coming through the speakers landing as much impact now as it must have done there. You feel as if you’re present at the event. A profound sense of unity washing over you and whoever else may be watching the film at the same time. This is a true big screen audience experience. Both in terms of those in the cinema and those at the Harlem Cultural Festival. All with an appreciation for what it all stands for and the music as a whole. In fact in the second half of the piece things slightly shift from the political nature that was at hand – the Black Panthers were security at the event supported by the “liberal Republican” mayor of New York, who made an appearance during the festival – to the workings of the music. The styles and techniques that an individual musician or artist used and the passion that they showed in their work.

Yet, the emotional backgrounds are still there. A personal and powerful dedication to Martin Luther King is observed and, as with many elements throughout the fast-flowing two hour course of the piece, dwelled upon for a solid amount of time so that it has a real impact. Even when cutting to interviews to flesh out just how much this long-forgotten festival meant the power of the music is still present. It keeps you placed within the crowd, yet connected to those who were so integral to making the event, and this film, as powerful as it was. It’s a true summer experience to watch. Focusing on the positive side of the unity and the music that helped bring it about. The way people interacted, their thoughts, feelings and the expressive freedom that they felt. Summer Of Soul involves the viewer in a revolutionary celebration of powerful identity. With his debut feature Questlove not only helps recreate and relive, but creates a powerful mixture of heat, cooling and revolution in response to tragedy, upset, anger and a cry to have voices heard, all translated into the effective music proclaimed from the stage.

Summer Of Soul is a true big screen, audience experience. An absolute summer hit of revolution, soul and proclaiming music. All relived and brought further to life through well inserted personal interviews, images and news clips.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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