Tuesday 20 July 2021

Harlem shuffle: "Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"

The first image in Summer of Soul is of a clapperboard bearing the film's working title "Black Woodstock Doc". Though blunter than the final title, that's pretty much what we have here. Questlove - frontman of The Roots, last seen DJing at this year's pared-back Oscar ceremony - has assembled two hours of broadly unseen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts staged in the summer of 1969 by impresario Tony Lawrence with support from authorities keen to avoid a repeat of the previous summer's riots. The immediate selling point of this footage is the bill, which spans from the roots of R'n'B and gospel (BB King, Sister Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers) to emergent pop megastars (Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock) via such none-more-'69 phenomena as The 5th Dimension. DJ training at the fore, Questlove keeps the good times rolling - the acts keep coming, the music never quits - but his savviest creative decision was to get surviving performers not just to reflect on the events of these few weeks, but to sit and watch this footage, and to marvel at it, as we do. In making that call, Summer of Soul enters into emotive cinematic conversation with 1970's Gimme Shelter, where the filmmakers confronted shellshocked members of the Rolling Stones with footage of the Altamont set that ended in fan Meredith Hunter being knifed to death. Summer of Soul is the positive to that film's negative: it could just be the high prevalence of gospel acts - like the Edwin Hawkins Singers, offering a take on "Oh Happy Day" that gets markedly cheerier as it goes along - but here is the sanctuary Mick and Keith might just have been searching for at the end of a decade as turbulent as the Sixties. (In passing, the film repositions the Black Panthers as a far more effective security detail than the Hell's Angels could ever dream of being.)

It was a sanctuary for the people of Harlem, too, of course - and the frequent cutaways to the crowd may just be where the real history resides in Summer of Soul. A recurring observation in the testimony is that neither performers nor concertgoers had ever seen so many Black people in the same place, and you really do have to wonder who was left outside the gates, faced with the swelling crowd visible as Sly and the Family Stone take to the stage, instantly shifting pop into its Technicolor phase (while giving pallid white boys like S-Express's Mark Moore ideas). They might have been unaware of it - and perhaps it needed Questlove and heroic editor Joshua Pearson to cut and paste and punch this up - but the camerapersons installed in Mt. Morris Park on the afternoons in question were doing the job of social historians, scanning this morass of pop kids and village elders and describing diverse personalities on the fly. Youngsters either goof for the camera, or are observed starting to flag. A jolly veteran turns up with a (surely surplus to requirements) transistor radio under his arm. (Was there a baseball game on at the same time?) There's a lot of dancing, understandably given the line-up. Yet nothing is uniform. When a young Jesse Jackson starts bearing witness, in fairly graphic terms, to Martin Luther King's death the previous year, there are as many puzzled expressions in the crowd as there are shows of emotion. Some concertgoers have dressed up for the occasion - cueing a sidebar on the style of Harlem circa '69 - but many others have clearly just wandered in off the adjacent streets, drawn by the buzz and the promise of a few hours' free entertainment.

The crucial fact Summer of Soul documents is that they were there at all, a community, a people: together, unsegregated, still standing in the face of all those in America who would have spent the previous decade(s) purging them or knocking them down like ninepins. With the exception of a few scattered Caucasian interlopers, this crowd is still predominantly African-American, with all the cultural wrestling that entails, rather brilliantly evoked when a blazered TV news reporter drops by to vox pop concertgoers on the moon landing that took place amid these concerts. (Any professors out there looking for a teachable example of the cinema's capacity for articulating counternarratives should seize on these few minutes of rare gold: almost to a man, the Harlemites insist the money blown on this moonshot could have been better spent straightening out problems closer to home, a line of thought that has returned to prominence in summer 2021 as the Earth's richest take turns propelling themselves into the stratosphere for bored-billionaire shits-and-giggles.) Yet with the cops back on the other side of the barricades for once, it very much looks as though these concerts offered a day or two off from the struggle - a chance just to be, or to be Black, a concept then as new as anything the Family Stone brought to the stage. That's surely why Questlove makes Nina Simone his headline act, as Black-and-proud as you like, belting out "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" before initiating a call-and-response pop quiz on what any onlookers (in the park, and at the Odeon) have learnt from these festivities ("Are you ready to love Black?"). Ironically, the absence of crowd trouble may have led to the Harlem Cultural Festival being overlooked for so long; it passed without incident, a gathering of like-minded, law-abiding citizens that went off more or less as its administrators planned, something you couldn't quite say about Woodstock, and not at all about Altamont. This eminently valuable, effortlessly entertaining record of the event captures a lot of soul, yes, but it shows us even more besides: harmony, as much peace as towering speaker stacks will permit, and - above all else - love.  

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from July 30.  

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