That happened, but I’m talking about The Harlem Cultural Festival, a star-studded, six-week extravaganza featuring everyone from Stevie Wonder and the 5th Dimension to Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone that drew tens of thousands of people to Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The concerts were filmed, but when no taker could be found for the footage, it sat, unseen for fifty years in the basement of a producer named Hal Tulchin.
Now rescued and wrestled into a two-hour documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots, it brims with excitement, pain, hope and, of course, dynamic performances and great music.
Part concert documentary, it’s a must see if only for Nina Simone’s performance of “Backlash Blues.” It is just one of the dozens of musical numbers, all expertly curated by Questlove, but here there is no sense of nostalgia, just the pure power of performance.
Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples bring another emotional highlight, duetting on Martin Luther king Jr.’s favorite gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The civil rights leader was assassinated the year before, and their singing brings out both the beauty and the ache inherent in the song and the circumstances.
Also deftly woven in are remembrances from people who were there, on stage and off. Marilyn McCoo wipes away a tear as she watches the footage of her band The Fifth Dimension. New York Times journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault helps set the scene politically and culturally while
Rev. Jesse Jackson recalls the story behind the electric performance pf “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Far from simply using the music and the festival as a framework for the film, Questlove mixes in, with the expert hand of a DJ who understands rhythm and syncopation, archival news footage and contemporary interviews. This approach provides much needed historical context and makes the effect of the music even more impactful.
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at a time when music was changing—you hear the influences of Latin Jazz and soul and gospel, all brewing together to create something new—and as the world changed. “Summer of Soul” is the rare music documentary that balances the historical with the musical with such grace and power.