Summer Of Soul Film Review

by Darlene Nawuridam

Overall Impression

I enjoyed watching the film “Summer of Soul.” My first impression was that the entire movie would just be about the concert and the artists but, I am glad I was wrong. The film included the artists’ perspective, the audience, and the cultural issues that were going on at the time. The documentary was about the Harlem Cultural Festival at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, NY, in 1969, the same year as Woodstock. The festival was organized by Tony Lawrence, a singer, and lasted for six Sundays.

When the festival took place, a tv producer filmed about 40 hours of footage that was later left in a basement for nearly 50 years. Watching the documentary made me realize how important music was to Black people; music gave Black people the opportunity to celebrate themselves. Even though the festival had a large audience and had popular performers like Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, 5th Dimension, and Gladys Knight, it was still not as well-known as Woodstock.

I enjoyed watching Summer of Soul. The creators did not just use the footage of the concert but instead used the music as a foundation to talk about the cultural and social issues in Harlem at the time.

My favorite performance from the film was Nina Simone. Simone’s performance was my favorite not only because she is a great performer but also because her performance, in my opinion, alluded to the cultural and social issues that were happening during that time. Singing songs like “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” and reading the poem by David Nelson, “Are You Ready, Black People?” Simone embraces the Black experience and encourages all the Black people in the audience to do so.

In the ‘Summer of Soul Trailer,’ Nina Simone sings ‘Are You Ready Black People.’

Artists' Impression and Genres.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a great example of the different genres present in that era. These genres include jazz, soul, musical theatre, R&B, blues, gospel, and funk. The artists that performed at the festival include Stevie Wonder, B.B King, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Prof. Herman Stevens & The Voices Of Faith, Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Barretto, David Ruffin, Mongo Santamaría, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers.  Additionally,  Clara Walker & The Gospel Redeemers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Tyler & Lester, Moms Mabley, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ben Branch, Sonny Sharrock, Hugh Masekela, and many more. 

Stevie Wonder

19-year-old Stevie Wonder at the time was the first concert performance presented in the documentary. Stevie Wonder plays Jazz and accompanies the arrangement with a drum solo. The drum solo started slow but became more upbeat as he kept playing. Stevie Wonder’s performance, in the beginning, was captivating and astonishing.

B.B King

B.B King was the second performance in the show. B.B King performed a blues song called “Why I Sing the Blues.” I found it funny that a blues musician was singing a song about why he was a blues musician and wearing a blue suit during his performance. I noticed in his performance that the timbre would change from soft too deep and heavy, which made the song more interesting. However, I would say my favorite part of the performance was his bass solo. I love a good bass solo, and B.B King did not disappoint. 

The 5th Dimension

Musical Theatre, Soul, and R&B This was my first time hearing The 5th Dimension. They are an R&B musical group from St. Louis, Missouri. They sang two songs, “Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ To Ya” and “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” The 5th Dimension was my least favorite performance in the documentary. I thought the vocals and rhythm did not match and I one person was over singing. The idea of combining a pop and musical theatre song sounds great in theory, but when I heard it in the documentary, I was not a fan of it. Maybe the studio version would be better.  

Edwin Hawkins Singers

Edwin Hawkins Singers sang “Oh Happy Day,” which is one of my favorite gospel songs by the group. This was a fantastic performance. The inclusion of claps transformed the performance and made me feel like I was back in church. Even though it was not received with open arms by the church, it is still a monumental song that adds value and history to the festival.

Pops Staples and The Staple Singers

The Staple Singers introduced another style of gospel music to the audience. The long-held notes by the singers added emotion to the music. Even though the Staples sang mostly gospel music, there were elements of jazz, blues, and soul in their music. I enjoyed watching this performance. You can even tell from watching their performance that it also gave the audience joy watching them. 

Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples

Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples sang “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite song. In historical context, MLK had been assassinated a year earlier, and Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples were singing this song to him. Before their performance, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Ben Branch, who were with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his assassination, share an intense and heartfelt reflection to the Harlem audience. The performance was so powerful and moving. When I heard this performance, I got goosebumps. I can only imagine how it was to experience this in person.  

David Ruffin

David Ruffin of The Temptations performed R&B and Soul song “My Girl.” This was another fantastic performance. I liked the fact that the audience was very receptive and sang along to the song. The falsetto timbre of his voice was just so satisfying to hear and added to the feel of the music and performance. 

Gladys Knight and The Pips

They sang “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” an example of soul music. Gladys Knight was the queen of soul. At the time of this performance, they were up and coming. This was an outstanding performance by Gladys Knight. I enjoyed watching them, and the group was very talented. Gladys Knight mentioned in the documentary that Motown stressed for them to keep their integrity and class, which they delivered. She also states that that day during the festival, it wasn’t just about the music. Everyone that went there wanted to progress. They went out there to celebrate being Black, and it is more powerful when Black people have their people lifting them. 

Sly and the Family Stone

It was mentioned in the documentary that when people thought of Black groups, they would imagine a group of men in suits, but when they introduced Sly, the audience was apprehensive. The group, however, had a white man for a drummer and women in the group. But, as soon as they began playing, it was as if they forgot their apprehension. The music they started playing was instantly captivating and easy to sing along to. Their music sounded like a mixture of funk and soul. They brought with them gender parity and a new style of music. Sly and the Family Stone changed the stereotype of music groups at the time.

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln

Max Roach was first shown playing the drums. The jazz music that Max was playing sounded frustrating. You could see the energy and emotions he was going through as he played that solo. Max Roach was playing away from his anger and frustration on what was happening socially and politically in the country. When Abbey Lincoln came out, they both performed “Africa.” Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln were the Black power couple. They showed the audience what it was to be unapologetically Black. They both saw the struggles of the African diaspora as the same. 

Cultural and Social Issues

In the documentary, the mayor of New York City, Mayor John Lindsay, was the one to vouch for Tony Lawrence to get everything to make The Harlem Cultural Festival Happen. John Lindsay was an advocate for the Black community and would often be seen interacting with Black folks all the time. A year ago, before the festival, they had killed Martin Luther King, and John Lindsay was out in the streets with the Black community pushing to keep their communities safe.

Music at the time was segregated. The late 60s brought a new Afrocentric movement. The Black community found that African styles, music, and clothing, suited them better. Afros were also introduced at this time. Black people in America were trying to identify their identity, so they turned to Africa for inspiration. The Harlem Cultural Festival brought in many different cultures.

During the Harlem Cultural Festival, a man landed on the moon. Most people that attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, however, thought the moon landing was essential. Still, the concert was far more important and relevant to them than any man landing on the moon. Someone interviewed in the documentary mentioned that the money used to get a man on the moon could’ve been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over the country. And he was not the only Black person at the time who thought that.

Most Black folks in Harlem were not focused on the news about the moon landing but rather on the most pressing issue they were facing in their community at the time. The heroin epidemic. People believed that the Black community turned to drugs because of all the oppression they were being subjected to, and the only way to alleviate the pain was to turn to drugs.

Around this time as well, the was a call for change. More Black folks, along with the change, dropped the term “Negro” in favor of the word “Black.” Mavis Staples mentions the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, and Stokely would come and hear them sing. In 1969, Black pride started to have a significant effect on the country. The Young Lords Party and the Black Panthers were fighting for a revolution. They were tired of the police brutality, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. At the same time as the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Panther 21 trial was happening downtown. This was when they locked up 21 Black Panthers.

Most artists that performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival wanted to change. Their music spoke to the people because it was the same frustration and anger that they felt.