The music star’s directorial début, a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, knits a wealth of unseen footage into a joyous whole.
By Anthony Lane
June 25, 2021
Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson’s film celebrates a forgotten music festival.Illustration by Ricardo Santos; Source photographs courtesy Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios
Halfway through a heavy year, the best movie so far—the one most likely to ease the load and lift you up—is “Summer of Soul.” It’s a documentary, directed by Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, a drummer, a d.j., a record producer, and a founder of the Roots, best known as the house band for Jimmy Fallon. You may have spotted Thompson behind the decks at the Academy Awards, in April, where he seemed to be just about the only person, amid the scores of participants and the millions of television viewers, who was demonstrably having a good time. Now, adding one more arrow to his quiver, he has made his first film, in which pretty much everybody has a good time.
“Summer of Soul” is about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. If you haven’t heard of it, that may be because it was—tellingly, if not deliberately—erased from public consciousness. The festival took place outdoors, in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), and it was filmed, under lighting generously provided by the sun. The tapes then sat in a basement, largely unseen, for half a century. At last, they have been unearthed and, in the hands of Thompson and his editor, Joshua L. Pearson, given new life and shape.
Among the skills required of any documentarian is a croupier’s cunning, and you have to be quick to notice the way in which Thompson, holding a full deck of footage, shuffles and deals. The festival consisted of six separate events, held on a bunch of Sundays, beginning on June 29th and concluding on August 24th. But we glimpse that schedule only once, in passing, and the rest of the film makes no distinction between the different days, splicing the acts together and leaving us with the impression that the crowds that mustered in the park—some three hundred thousand strong, in total—were treated to one big rolling jubilee of sweet sounds. As far as I can tell, we get no clips from the final event, listed as “Miss Harlem Beauty Pageant and Local Talent.” Probably a wise move.
The festival’s producer, and the host of the proceedings, was Tony Lawrence, who is lauded in the film as “a hustler, in the best sense.” The outcome of his hustling was a lineup so absurdly rich, and so river-wide in its range of genres, that you want to laugh: Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, Hugh Masekela, David Ruffin—as thin as a barber’s pole, in a pink bow tie, with a falsetto sent from God—and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Especially the Pips. Their curveting dance routines, around a single microphone, are a thing of calibrated beauty. (We long to know more, and Thompson, an ace of the educative cutaway, obliges by bringing in Knight. She credits the band’s choreographer, Cholly Atkins, who schooled them for ten or eleven hours a day.) Then, there’s the gleeful confession of Ray Barretto, bespectacled and busy at his drums: “In my blood I got Black—and white—red—Puerto Rican—Indian. I’m all messed up!”
To claim that the stage was occupied exclusively by people of color, though, would be inaccurate. For one thing, we see Lawrence bid welcome to the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, and introduce him as “our blue-eyed soul brother.” (For any viewers who are baffled by the film’s description of Lindsay as a “liberal Republican,” it should be explained that this refers to a once flourishing species, tough of hide but strangely peaceable in demeanor, that now verges on total extinction, like the Sumatran rhino.) Also visible, during a phenomenal set by Sly and the Family Stone, and easy to pick out in leopard-skin bell-bottoms, is Greg Errico. In the words of a man named Darryl Lewis, who was there that day, “The white guy is the drummer! You know, he’s not supposed to be able to do that.”
Lewis, a fount of geniality, is one of many attendees who are interviewed for the film. Their memories are, without exception, deliciously fresh. Dorinda Drake, who was nineteen at the time, says, “That’s the summer we became free”—pause—“of our parents.” Musa Jackson recalls the aroma in the park as if it were incense: “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken.” He was a little kid at the festival, though not so little that he didn’t lose his heart to Marilyn McCoo, a singer with the 5th Dimension. “I didn’t want to leave,” he says. Then, being a gentleman, he corrects himself: “I didn’t want to leave her.”
The 5th Dimension are seen performing their version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”—which is almost as merry as the lip-synched version at the end of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005)—wearing yellow, red, and orange. “You remember Creamsicles?” Jackson says, needing to nail the orange down. At the risk of blasphemy, I reckon that the clothes in “Summer of Soul” are very nearly as entertaining as the music. The cravats! The fringes! The hectic ruffs! Lawrence, as befits the master of ceremonies, sports an ever-changing cycle of outfits, including a white lace top with a carmine vest, and a shiny shirt that looks like an explosion in a host of golden daffodils. Imagine the envious glances he would have drawn at the court of Louis XIV.
“Summer of Soul” is one of those rare films from which you emerge saying, “My favorite part was that bit. No, that bit. Wait, how about that bit?” Personally, I’m torn between Stevie Wonder’s keyboard solo on “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da Day,” in which he plays like a man possessed, and “Everyday People” from Sly and the Family Stone, with its captivating chorus—“Different strokes, for different folks, / And so on and so on and scooby-dooby-doo.” Has there ever been a neater précis of the Bill of Rights? And I haven’t even mentioned the beatific array of gospel performers, including Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, or the Edwin Hawkins Singers, vivid in lime green, swaying in unison to “Oh Happy Day.”
But something else is happening here. There’s no lack of great concert movies, so how to account for the urgent thrill of this one? Because of all the unhappy days. Because the whole of the Harlem Cultural Festival was, as someone remarks of Nina Simone’s imperious set, “like a rose coming through cement.” Because “Summer of Soul” has a subtitle that presents its political credentials: “Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.” The buzz of the occasion (even as the end credits die, you hear the hum of the throng) arose against a backdrop of profound unrest, in the African-American community above all. A year earlier, on April 4, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harlem had suffered riots and hours of looting, and, as Darryl Lewis suggests, “New York was trying not to have a repeat of that, in ’69.” Hence the brief but vital images of white policemen, standing calmly in the midst of Black festivalgoers, and neither making trouble nor seeking to rein it in. Who knows, maybe they felt the groove inside.
What we are witnessing, in short, is not a state of bliss but a precious, precarious interlude of release and relief, before the pressures of an unequal society kicked back in. History chose to commemorate Woodstock, which unfolded a hundred miles or so away, in the heat of the same summer. But history, as so often, went to the wrong gig.
Clearly inspired by Montaigne, who added to his “Essays” in the course of many years, the makers of the “Fast & Furious” franchise have deemed it behoovely, by God’s grace, to enlarge upon that which they have wrought. The first movie, “The Fast and the Furious,” came out in 2001, and scholars have focussed on its emblematic scene, in which Vin Diesel’s character took his seat underthe hood of a hot rod, in the space where an engine would normally be. No fit was ever snugger. Thenceforth, we could no longer tell where the motor ended and the man began, and, for twenty years, that exquisite confusion has endured.
The character’s name is Dom Toretto. (“Dom,” alas, is an abbreviated “Dominic,” rather than an ecclesiastical honorific.) He is back for “F9: The Fast Saga,” the ninth chapter of this multitudinous epic, joined by a selection of family members. In fiery flashback, we meet his father, Jack (J. D. Parto). In the present, we have Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and, new to the game, his naughty brother, Jakob (John Cena). The tiniest Toretto is Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane), Dom’s son, whom he tucks into bed at the start of the film, neglects, and then retrieves more than two hours later. Where’s the sitter? Is there a Grandma Toretto somewhere, with her Prius and her knitting?
The director is Justin Lin. The stunts have an elastic implausibility that, though well suited to a Road Runner cartoon, seem embarrassing when transposed into live action. The locations include Tokyo, London, Cologne, Edinburgh, Tbilisi, and, in a booster thrust of desperation, outer space. The acting is of a soaring ineptitude; the deeper Diesel emotes, the more he resembles a man who dabbed too much wasabi on his tuna roll. The most imposing performance is that of Corona—not the virus but the beer, whose labels face the camera with pride. Drink enough of the stuff before you see the movie, and you might just have a blast. ♦