Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969.
Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Summer of Soul (. . . Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) could command attention just by virtue of its treasure trove of previously unreleased vintage footage of R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, and blues legends, including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, and Sly and the Family Stone. But the documentary, which spotlights the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival, a six-week series of free performances celebrating Black music and culture in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), is much more than a standard concert film.

Presented and hosted by New York promoter and nightclub singer Tony Lawrence, the Harlem Culture Festival attracted more than 300,000 guests. Many have compared its scale and importance with Woodstock, which took place that same summer a mere 100 miles north of Harlem, but while that massive hippie gathering has been etched into cultural memory, the Harlem Culture Festival has largely been overlooked or forgotten by those who weren’t there. Though a crew sponsored by Maxwell House and led by Hal Tulchin expertly filmed the concert series, the bulk of their efforts sat in storage for 50 years.

In his directorial debut, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, and Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson tells the story of the festival through the eyes of its producers, artists, and attendees. A straightforward compilation of performance clips would be riveting in its own right, but in Questlove’s hands, the concerts become a porthole into broader discussions of Black history, community, and identity in the mid- to late 60s—a turbulent period beset by civil unrest, ongoing war, and political assassinations. “It was a crazy, crazy period. We needed something to really reach out and touch us. We needed that music,” said Barbara Bland-Acosta, who attended the festival with friends as a high school student.

Perhaps it’s a testament to Questlove’s musical sensibilities that the sound of the Harlem Culture Festival remains ever-present throughout the film; “talking-head” style interviews are often layered over concert audio, which acts like a rhythmic electrical current that unites its themes of Black music, religion, fashion, and pride. “It wasn’t just about the music. We wanted progress. We are Black people and we should be proud of this, and we want our people lifting us up. We believed what we felt in [our hearts],” says Gladys Knight, recalling the atmosphere of the festival, where she performed with the Pips.

Summer of Soul does an excellent job of showcasing that spirit, and especially how the festival brought together music lovers across generations, regions, and cultural attitudes: Adrienne Kroyer of the Edwin Hawkins Singers discusses how performing in secular spaces put the gospel group at odds with members of their Pentecostal community; Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. of the 5th Dimension describe the emotional rush they felt playing for a welcoming audience after receiving criticism that their pop-infused sound was too “white”; and Lin-Manuel Miranda steps in to applaud the appearance of Latin-jazz musicians including Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria as a political act celebrating the ties between Harlem’s Black and Brown communities.

Among the film’s most powerful moments is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in April 1968, just over a year before the festival. After some powerful words from Jesse Jackson, Memphis saxophonist Ben Branch and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson perform the Civil Rights leader’s favorite song “Precious Lord,” with last-minute help from Chicago vocal legend Mavis Staples, who describes the experience as “an unreal moment for me.”

Though more than a half-century has passed since the summer of 1969, every issue the film touches upon—a short list includes police brutality toward Black and Brown communities, rich white guys funneling wealth into space travel while ignoring poverty on Earth, and the ongoing impacts of erasure and appropriation of Black culture—remains as crucial today as ever. Presented against the backdrop of these iconic performances, Summer of Soul seems to suggest, come for the music, stay for the revolution.  v