Review: ‘Summer of Soul…(Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Brilliant!

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It was last Friday, after a long work week when I wandered out of the cubby hole in the attic I call my office and staggered downstairs to the living room. I flopped down in my chair with an exhausted sigh. The Rock Chick asked me if I’d checked to see if there was any good new music released that day? I don’t know why she even asked, she knows I obsessively check for new music every Friday as that’s the day new music comes out. Sadly I could only say, “Nah, nothing new.” As often happens in my marriage she voiced the very thoughts in my head out loud. “What happened to all this new music that was supposed to come out in 2021, that all the bands we dig were supposed to be working on in lockdown?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly. Usually when new stuff comes out, we’ll pour a drink or two and listen to tunes on Friday night. There have been literally only 4 new LPs that have piqued my interest this year: Cheap Trick, Black Keys, Billy Gibbons and Dirty Honey. I did dig the surprise Bowie birthday single this year, two great covers. I hope those Bowie vaults have more gems…

This Friday, after an even longer work week, I repeated the same ritual of staggering down the stairs. It had been a tough week so I poured myself a tumbler of dark, murky fluid… Four Roses bourbon to be exact. I sat in my easy chair with a hard drink and muttered, “Another week, no new music we’d be interested in.” Not even a single. I guess all the bands I heard were recording: The Cult, The Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with John Frusciante back in the fold, no less!) are either still laboring over their respective new music or they’re waiting to see if this Delta Variant causes touring to be impossible again this year. I hope we don’t see another year of darkened concert halls and empty stages. I think the world really needs music, especially now. I am looking forward to new David Crosby and Jackson Browne LPs next Friday.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my usual spot, sipping bourbon, wondering what Friday night held for the Rock Chick and I. After we dined, she grabbed the remotes and started pulling up Hulu. I don’t know how it works with the remote control in your house. I used to treat the remote to the TV like it was a scepter. He who controls the “power stick” controls the universe. But as the number of remotes needed has multiplied with streaming and such, I’ve ceded control to the Rock Chick. She plans what we binge watch anyway and let’s face it, you have to pick your battles in relationships. As soon as Hulu flickered onto the screen I realized what she was pulling up. I had mentioned the new documentary directed by Questlove – one of the coolest dudes on the planet whose encyclopedic knowledge of music humbles even me – Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). I had been wanting to see this documentary but had forgotten about it during the turbulent week…I mention something to the Rock Chick once and it’s like a steel trap, it’s gonna happen. I need to start mentioning things like Blanton’s bourbon…but I’m off topic.

The summer of 1968 was a turbulent one in America, especially for Blacks in the inner cities. Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated in April and there was broad rioting across America and New York’s Harlem was no exception. Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of ’68 making matters worse. Then reactionary thug Richard Nixon was elected in November. That ain’t no summer of love… what a difference a year makes. In 1969, perhaps in an effort to distract people they put on a series of concerts over six weeks in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now I believe it’s called Marcus Garvey Park). The concerts were billed as the Harlem Cultural Festival. Apparently they had cameras and filmed this event. When you consider Woodstock was just up the road around 100 miles and they filmed it and released a movie, one has to wonder, where has this film been? Apparently all the film of what was known as “Black Woodstock” sat in someone’s basement for 50 years, untouched. It’s been years since I saw Woodstock at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall, but that was an influential movie for me, quite formative. I can’t help but wonder what impact this footage of Black Woodstock would have had on everybody had it been released similarly.

Questlove did an amazing job as director of this film. I literally had tears in my eyes during certain moments of the film. He took the original concert footage – which is so vibrant and beautifully shot – and mixed in news reel footage to give it all some historical perspective. He interviews a number of the performers who played the Festival. He also – and I loved this – interviewed some of the people who were kids in the crowd that historic summer. The overflowing vibes of Black Power and Black Pride put the aforementioned tears in my eyes. I just loved this film. It was a really difficult time in America and especially for Black Americans… Sadly, it was eerily similar to what we see today… certainly like the summer of 2020. I’d have hoped we’d have made more progress in 50 some years.

The performers and performances also just knocked me out. It started with a young Stevie Wonder singing and playing a righteous drum solo. There was a big Gospel section in the middle of the movie – one might consider it the heartbeat of the film, as it is for so many performers – that featured the Staples (I love Pop on guitar and Mavis!) and Mahalia Jackson. The Fifth Dimension does a couple of songs and they interview Marilyn Mccoo and Billy Davis, Jr. I must say, Florence LaRue is my new rock n roll crush right now. Sly and the Family Stone – one of the first bands to feature men and women, black and white – put on their usual incendiary performance. B.B. King is such a beloved performer, I love his song in the film. Seeing Gladys Knight I realize I will never be, nor have I ever been cool enough to be a Pip…the way those cats move! David Ruffin from the Temptations does a solo set (he’d just left the group) that proves he may be the greatest rock/soul singer ever. Of the performances, I have to admit Nina Simone steals the show. It was a thing of brilliance to end the movie on her performance. It really puts an exclamation point on the film. “Blacklash Blues” is a song for the ages. She was fierce. 

I urge everyone out there to see this film. This is a hugely important historical document. It shows the Black community coming together peacefully to vibe on great music and culture. This was an event that didn’t deserve to be a whispered rumor or fading memory but should be celebrated as the cultural touchstone that it was. Its a great thing for music fans to see this footage but it’s also a great look back to 1969 and what was happening in Harlem. Its a wonderful addition to the Woodstock movie in terms of viewing 1969 musically. I was profoundly moved watching this film. I laughed, I cried… it really got to me. I think it will do that for everyone who watches it. Whoever controls the remote in your house needs to dial this movie up immediately…

Cheers!

 

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