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Movie Review: Summer of Soul Shows Harlem Entertainment in the 1960’s

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Have you ever seen footage of a young Stevie Wonder playing the drums? Or how about Nina Simone crooning into a microphone? Thanks to Questlove, music fans now have a wonderful film that focuses on a long forgotten music festival. Here is a review of the documentary Summer of Soul.

100 miles away from Woodstock, a very different concert was taking place in the heart of Harlem.  300,000 residents of New York City headed to the Harlem Cultural Festival to see the likes of Stevie Wonder, BB King, Nina Simone and more perform live.  The footage was tucked away for years until now, and in a fascinating almost 2 hour long documentary Summer of Soul. Summer of Soul is a compilation of interviews and archival footage of the concert and its attendees.  

Summer of Soul review
Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Despite the chaos and strife Black residents were going through in 1960’s it’s a special thing to see Black people relaxed and enjoying some of the best music during that period.  Some of the footage is intimate, families can be seen enjoying the music, children dancing and backstage clips of musicians mingling with Black Panthers who provided security instead of the NYPD.

Summer of Soul review
The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Tony Lawrence is a key figure in the documentary and one of the lesser known figures in New York City. A musician, he was one of the main organizers who working with talent and the City of New York to pull off the concert. He’s quite a character and it’s interesting to hear from people who worked alongside him how he was able to negotiate to ensure the festival was successful including how Lawrence cultivated a relationship with then mayor John Lindsey.

Summer of Soul tells the story of a beautiful time in Black culture and is a wonderful trip down memory lane.

DVD Bonus Features

  • Audio Commentary – View the film with audio commentary by director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
  • Soul Searching – A behind-the-scenes look at Summer of Soul. We’ll learn about where the footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival has been, how it was uncovered, and why director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson decided to tell this story now.
  • Harlem: Then & Now – We revisit Mount Morris Park, location of the Harlem Cultural Festival. We learn how the neighborhood was a crossroads of culture and precarious politics and explore why Summer of Soul is so relevant during this present time of great political upheaval.

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