Basement Tapes: The Music of “Summer of Soul”

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Motion Picture Soundtrack is a column that explores the soundtracks of music documentaries and biopics. Using songs featured in each respective film or series, the column offers readers a primer on artists and bands worth loving, revisiting, and discovering anew. This week, we look at Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s provocative, brilliant, and essential new film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

“It wasn’t just about the music.”

—Gladys Knight

In the summer of 1969, Woodstock happened. It was a big deal. Lots of acts; lots of people; lots of pot (I assume). It stands as a testament to an era, a time, a mood. But Woodstock, for all its countercultural clout, has since become little more than a brand, another relic from the Hippie Era™ that aging music critics and Baby Boomers still uphold as the most important event in music history. It is not. I’m not being pessimistic or contrarian—it just isn’t.
Now, I would not, for a moment, claim that Woodstock wasn’t historically significant. It was. But we have to think about why it became so historically significant when, only a few hundred miles away, something equally—if not more—impressive was taking place.

Over six weekends that same summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). It was organized by Tony Lawrence. Much like Woodstock, there were lots of acts, lots of people, and lots of pot (it was 1969, after all). It was minutely documented, then buried in a basement for 50 years.

And now, here we are.

There is no reason for me to say anything past that. You owe it to yourself to watch this film. If you have any interest in music history—hell, if you have any interest in music OR history, as separate entities—you MUST watch this film. But there are a few things I have to add because, throughout its 2-hour runtime, I experienced moments of elation, of anger, of serenity. I had tears streaming down my face, which does not happen very often (not a boast, just a fact). Ms. Mahalia Jackson sings, and it is one of the most powerful musical performances ever committed to tape—celluloid, digital, or otherwise. A young Stevie Wonder banters with his band leader, and rips it on the drums, full of wonder (sorry…) and energy. A freshly-solo David Ruffin makes his way through “My Girl,” looking dashing and the epitome of cool. The 5th Dimension bring up dancers from the crowd. Nina Simone is, well, Nina Simone. She looks like an absolute goddess because she is one.

While the film is a musical tour de force, it is also so much more than that—exploring various cultural and political events that surrounded and influenced the festival. There were the murders of FOUR (!) prominent politicians and Civil Rights activists (two Kennedys, Dr. King, and Malcolm). The Vietnam War was escalating. Nixon was being sworn in. Harlem was in bad shape. AMERICA was in bad shape.

And then, there was this festival: a beacon of hope, of celebration, that played by its own rules. The Black Panthers had to act as security because the NYPD refused to participate, though they later relented. While the moon landing took place approximately 384,400 km away, festival attendees were interviewed about its significance. Redd Foxx had some choice words for the Apollo program, as did many of the young attendees, who saw the moon landing as a waste of money—money that could have been used to help solve problems here on Earth, in New York and in Harlem (they are and were, of course, correct). There are interviews with both festival attendees and contemporary artists and creators, including Chris Rock and Lin Manuel-Miranda, who give historical context and provide anecdotes.

But more than anything, there is the sound. That SOUND! Those songs and voices and instruments that cut through the bureaucratic, network bullshit and exist now, in the light, for all to see (finally!). The editing is crisp and direct, and the selected footage makes it clear why executives at ABC, CBS and NBC rejected this project. I don’t think I have to point out the specifics; it should be pretty obvious.

It is inexcusable that the footage featured in Summer of Soul was left in a basement for 50 years . It’s criminal. Monstrous. How anything with this much cultural and commercial significance could ever be considered “obscure” or “unreleasable” is a testament to media control in the United States. It’s truly an embarrassment, because the footage is gold. It is diamond. We are very lucky to have it. Questlove has done a wonderful thing here—a beautiful, essential thing. So far, it is the best film of the year for me. It’ll be hard to top.

My approach for this particular list is a bit different than the last few I’ve pulled together. Because there were so many acts, I decided to take one essential song from each artist featured in the film itself, in order to celebrate all of the on-screen participants. I have also included the songs they performed in the film, as additional research material (you’re welcome). The festival had many, many more performers, and Questlove could only fit so many in two hours, so I urge you to watch the credits. At the end, there is a list with the names of all 68 performers. I demand you check each and every one of them out.

Read (and listen) to Marko Djurdjic's list now: