Exciting, historical, tearful

Gaby Rubin reviews 'Summer of soul (or When the revolution could not be televised)', Ahmir Thompson (director) general release

The 60s was a head-spinning time. For people brought up then, and living through the political upheavals, some of the rivalries took place through music.

Woodstock was the music of the hippies - I remember feeling somewhat nauseated by the thought of lots of naked people smoking weed, having sex and taking other drugs in the open air. But then I was in the Communist Party of the USA, and we were conservative. Other music - gospel, soul, folk, country - was what kept us going, even though we were not black.

At the time of Woodstock, we were unaware of the concerts taking place elsewhere, such as the Harlem Culture Festival. Held over six weekends in what was then Mount Morris Park in Harlem, this was the quintessential black music festival of all time. And the film eventually made featuring it is one of the best, most joyful and yet historically educational concert movies ever made.

The six weekends were filmed by Hal Tulchin in 47 reels, which were then kept in his basement for 50 years. No-one was interested in promoting them. In 2017, finally, they were brought together into a single film, directed by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson - obviously a labour of love.

The music - as jaw-dropping as it is - is interspersed with footage and interviews of what was happening at the time: the killing of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King, and the riots these assassinations set off; the children and students trying to enter what were, at the time, all-white schools and universities; the attempt to desegregate soda fountains (if you are not sure what they were, ask an American) and buses; little children being fire-hosed and threatened by dogs; others being crammed into jail cells, still singing. The year after King’s death, the Harlem Culture Festival was staged and the movie gives a good back story to the history of the time.

Some of the people who were there as part of the audience are interviewed, as well as those who performed. Amongst those looking back are Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples … the list is endless. Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses the Afro-Latino performers and the politics of Spanish Harlem.

The politics are heady - but the music! It is heart-pumping, foot-stomping and in places almost unbearable in its beauty. It seems to move in rhythmic procession, from gospel and country, through to psychedelic, modern jazz and Afro-Latin.

The gospel singers appear in long dresses moving sedately. Mavis Staples (of The Staples Singers) describes singing a duet with the revered Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia asked Mavis to sing a piece for her, because “Mahalia isn’t feeling so good today”, and then they shared the microphone. Their combined voices and gospel harmony were almost enough to send you to church!

The Motown singers were in matching suits and performed choreographed dancing (I was reminded that in the 60s it was still not really acceptable for women to wear trousers). Then comes The Fifth Dimension, in rather psychedelic orange costumes - a group which many, having only heard their records but not seen them, thought were ‘too white’. Marilyn McCoo, watching herself performing all those years ago, was in tears and The Fifth Dimension were finally seen as what they were - a black group, with McCoo herself in the same costume as the men - trousers.

One audience member, the sweet and eloquent Musa Jackson, comments that he and his crew were strictly ‘tie and suit men’ - until they saw The Fifth Dimension, with their somewhat psychedelic costumes, singing ‘Let the sun shine in’. After that they were not ‘tie and suit men’ any more.

Stevie Wonder, apart from singing, does the most extraordinary drum solo. And wait until the very end of the last rolling credits - there is a very cute scene between Stevie Wonder and his producer.

Nina Simone - regal with her hairstyle and long dress - sings ‘To be young gifted and black’, which reduced many to tears. And she also recites a poem from a modern (at that time) poet, asking:

Are you ready, black people?

Are you really, really, really, really ready?

Ready to burn houses?

Ready to kill?

It was enough to make your hair stand up with chills.

At the same time as the concerts were taking place, Neil Armstrong took his one small step on the moon. Interviewed at the concert, various people from Harlem commented that the moon was not important - what about money for Harlem? It is interesting that - along with Maxwell House (the coffee people) who supported the concert - the (white) liberal Republican mayor, John Lindsey, supported, partially funded and came as a member of the audience. Lindsey was a major supporter of the arts in New York, and a mayor who was supported by the black community. There is footage of him walking through Harlem after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Something most mayors would not have dared do.

Sly and The Family Stone showed that women, on keyboards and trumpet, and - wonder of wonders - a white drummer, could be part of the mix.

More, much more - but see the film yourself. It is exciting, historical, tearful. It gives the lie to the belief at the time that ‘Black history is gonna be erased’. Musa Jackson, in tears at the end, thanks the film-maker for proving that he was not crazy - it really happened.

Gaby Rubin