There was a Harlem Cultural Festival in New York in the summer of 1969. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly Stone, the 5th Dimension, and Nina Simone were among the performers. It was filmed, and then the footage was put away for 50 years.
Now Amir Questlove Thompson of the Roots and the Tonight Show has found the film and made a two hour documentary called “Summer of Soul: When the Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised.” It’s literally like a box of designer chocolates, just one tasty bite after another. I felt like it was made for me personally.
The performers are beyond outstanding. The only problem is there are too many of them, and after a while the message of the film is lost. Questlove and his team of editors (who did an amazing job) are trying to fit everything into that box. This movie needs to be cut by a half hour. I learned this the hard way when I made “Only the Strong Survive” with Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker in 2002. The trick is to stick to your story even when there are so many riches available. Some of this could be on the DVD.
But that doesn’t take away from Thompson’s mission. He’s got all this incredible footage of Stevie, Gladys, the 5th Dimension– who are so underappreciated, Nina Simone, David Ruffin solo, and many instrumentalists, not to mention Sly and the Family Stone at their peak, and so much more. This is the Black Woodstock. Thompson intersperses the musicians’ backstories with historical perspective of the time and culture. There’s a lot of information, not to mention reminisces of concertgoers a half century later. All of it is gold, although some of it has more carats than others.
Just a note on Stevie: this footage is of historical importance because he’s on the verge here of becoming the adult star who turned out a half dozen Grammy winning classic albums starting two years later. You see him performing every instrument already, it’s pure genius. It’s like a sketchbook for what’s come with “Superstition” and “Higher Ground,” etc.
Stevie says in a narration, “I never wanted to let fear put my dreams to sleep.” That right there should be the jumping off point for his own documentary.
Anyway, a little second draft-ing, tightening, and contemplating will make “Summer of Soul” even better and a must see I hope in theaters, not just cable and platforms. Great work.