The closing night offering of the 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival was the highly anticipated documentary,. During the summer of 1969, a series of free concerts were staged at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park as part of the Harlem Cultural Festival. And the talent of the participants is staggering, featuring Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, The Staple Singers, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and more. The concerts were filmed with the intention of being compiled into a movie. Whether because the festival was overshadowed by Woodstock, happening concurrently, or because it was described as “too black”, nothing became of the potential film and the concert series was largely forgotten.
Times have changed.
Newly restored footage has been restored and assembled under the direction of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson into a dynamic new documentary. It’s a reclamation of history and a showcase of a fantastic group of performers and performances. At one of the most pivotal times in American history this represents a snapshot and showcase for one aspect of a changing world. And Questlove attempts to capture all of it. And what’s remarkable is, that his ambitions are matched with a fantastic film.
Questlove didn’t direct a single performance or plan any of the filming of the actual festival. Yet, there’s clearly a director’s stamp on how the material is presented and arranged. The biggest impact is in how the movie provides context for the larger cultural issues and for the individuals involved. Some of the context is quite profound. Man landed on the moon during the concert series and the overwhelmingly African American audience is largely unmoved by the feat. On a more personal level, The 5th Dimension had been derided as sounding “white” and used the festival as a coming out party to the black community and describes how much being accepted meant to them.
The context provided by the series of interviews staged is Questlove’s biggest contribution to the project and provide much needed context to fill in the gap in history. Those interviews are also the weakest link in the documentary especially when talking about the performances themselves. It’s one thing to describe the impact of Sly Stone being backed by white and female musicians. It’s another to describe how notable it is that Nina Simone plays the piano forcefully and then to watch her hit the piano keys less than 1 minute later. That’s just redundant. For the most part, Questlove hits the right balance, but there are times when you want the commentary to get out of the way of the performances.
But, the only reason people gathered in the first place was to be there to see great music performed and the film absolutely does not disappoint in that regard. There’s fantastic performance after fantastic performance by artists where the significance of the event absolutely means something to them. The music is also varied with Gospel, Soul, Blues, Motown, and everything in between represented. Spanish Harlem even gets a spotlight. It’s something of a coming out period in the culture for “being black” to mean something and to be proud of. In light of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, there’s a statement here that the black community is not going to back down. It’s a celebration and it leaves you wanting even more performances. It’s often a remarkable film and an instant classic, ranking up with the great concert documentaries.
Fortunately, you’ll not have to wait long to see this rediscovered treasure. SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) will be in theaters and streaming on Hulu starting on July 2, 2021. It’s not to be missed.
The 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival ran from May 6, 2021 until May 20, 2021. Many of the films that played the festival will find a virtual home on Milwaukee Film’s virtual Sofa Cinema site or at a local cinema or streaming site. The online home of the Milwaukee Film Festival can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website.