“It the ultimate black barbecue. And then you start to hear music…”
Story: 1969 was more than Woodstock and Altamont. In Harlem, there was a summer music series. It was filmed, but the footage was packed away. Musician Questlove took that footage and combined it with interviews with musicians, activists, and attendees, and a deep dive into the history of that summer in Harlem.
Genre I’d put it in: Historically Important Documentaries
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on – and using footage from – the Harlem Music Festival of 1969.
Gotta say: Blown. Away. I am simply blown away by Soul. Questlove gathered up an incredible number of people and interviewed them about that summer. Where they were in their lives, what the festival meant to them, what it meant to black people. Soul shows Harlem’s vibrant, beautiful community, while pointing out the serious issues that was happening in the area and to black people in 1969. This big-picture look at the festival adds a layer of pure beauty to the music.
But it’s not just the music. Soul looks at how the festival came together, who sponsored it (hey there Maxwell House), and how the fest was taped. It looks at Mayor John Lindsay, a politician nobody would think could exist; a liberal Republican. The historical context, as well as the interviews that give personal and social perspective on the festival, lifts this documentary from excellent to the sublime.
A few musical tidbits, to whet your appetite:
* Stevie Wonder WAILING on the drums. Damn, DAMN.
* Listening to The 5th Dimension sing “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” gave me all the good chills. Damn I love that song, and hearing from Marilyn McCoo about how important it was for them to perform for other black people while she teared up? Y’all, Y’ALL. All the feelings.
* How “O Happy Day” came to be (and how the Edwin Hawkin Singers got blowback from pentacostals for recording that song.)
* Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples blowing people away with “My Precious Lord”, as Questlove intercuts her set with MLK and how he loved that song.
* MOTOWN. Enough said.
* The reactions from the audience. That happiness, joy…and the obvious musician crushes. I feel y’all. (OMGOMGOMG Sly and the Family Stone!!!)
* Neuyorican music, and the blend of Latin and African culture.
* Nina Simone’s incredible set. “There’s a world waiting for you…”
But enough of my blathering. Just watch. WATCH. And enjoy. Better still, let it wash into your heart…and soul.
#Protip: The end credits show stills from the fest, as well as production notes. Enjoy that bit of “backstage” fun.