It’s 29 June 1969, and at Harlem’s Mount Morris park (now Marcus Garvey park), the 5th Dimension are about to take the stage. The Los Angeles group are already stars, thanks to hits including Up, Up and Away and Aquarius, from the musical Hair, which topped the Billboard charts that spring. But their pop-oriented repertoire, often penned by white songwriters, has kept them off the US’s R&B radio stations and thus from Black audiences. “We’d tried to separate ourselves from the segregation in our society, but we still got caught up in all that,” remembers the group’s founding singer, Billy Davis Jr, today. “And the average Black family didn’t earn enough to come see us at the nightclubs we were playing. They’d seen us on TV, but they’d never seen us live.”
That was about to change with their headline performance on the opening day of the Harlem cultural festival. A series of six Sunday concerts that summer, the festival showcased the cream of the era’s soul, gospel, blues and jazz artists before an audience of 300,000, many from the surrounding neighbourhoods. “I looked out and saw a sea of faces, and their response was so loving, so welcoming and exciting,” says Davis Jr’s wife and bandmate, Marilyn McCoo, for whom the festival remains a treasured memory. She’s not alone. Harlemite Musa Jackson, then just a five-year-old, still remembers how the 5th Dimension’s orange costumes, gleaming in the sun, made them look “like Creamsicles”.
The stage had been positioned to make the most of the natural light, to aid the veteran TV producer Hal Tulchin, who was filming the event with a small crew. Tulchin was hoping to produce a concert film along the lines of DA Pennebaker’s acclaimed chronicle of 1967’s Monterey pop festival. But, despite capturing thrilling performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone and many more, he couldn’t secure financing and, after two broadcasts of highlights on local television, his precious footage sat in storage for decades. The Woodstock festival – which also happened that summer, 100 miles upstate – became a cultural phenomenon, while the Harlem cultural festival disappeared quietly into history. “The concert took my life from black and white, into colour,” Musa Jackson remembers in Summer of Soul, a new documentary about the festival. “But then the concert was forgotten.”
Rescuing this historic event from obscurity, Summer of Soul is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, polymath bandleader and drummer with the Philadelphia hip-hop group the Roots. Approached by the producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein – who had negotiated the rights to the footage in Tulchin’s basement shortly before the film-maker’s death in 2017 – Thompson consulted his stellar Rolodex and made phone calls to Ernest Dickerson, Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. “I figured: if I can produce someone else’s record, write a book or teach classes in school, I can direct a movie. This was my chance to correct history.”
Thompson’s first instinct was to construct a simple concert movie. “Amazing Grace [Sydney Pollack’s long-delayed movie of a 1972 Aretha Franklin gospel concert] had just been released, and he showed you that performance without any context because he wanted to keep you inside that church. So, at first, I wanted to keep viewers inside that park in Harlem. But I had so many burning questions about the festival. So we sprinkled a little narrative here and there, and our interviewees started opening doors to further stories we wanted to investigate. My first draft was three hours and 25 minutes.”
Thompson edited his film down to a taut one hour 57 minutes. But as well as allowing some unforgettable performances to belatedly see the light of day, Summer of Soul deftly explores how music and politics intersected and where Black America was at in this powerful, precipitous moment. The US was still reeling from the violence of the preceding years, not least the assassinations of Malcolm X, Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. “The night of Dr King’s murder in 1968, every American city burned,” says Thompson, “except Boston, because James Brown performed that night and his show was broadcast on television. So people stayed home. The Harlem cultural festival was organised to prevent a repeat of that violence; to save Harlem from burning. Like: ‘Let’s keep people engaged through the summer. Hopefully, we can get through this.’ And it worked.”
But while the festival cooled simmering tensions, the documentary chronicles a country in roiling transition, and a Black America asserting its pride and refusing to relent in its quest for equality. The tensions of the era surface in the performances in different, but equally powerful, ways within the optimistic but forthright anthems of Sly & the Family Stone, the beautiful cacophony of jazzers Sonny Sharrock and Max Roach or the spiritual nourishment offered by gospel stars Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers (“Gospel was the therapy for the stress of being Black in America,” remarks Al Sharpton, one of the movie’s sparing selection of talking heads).
“[The year] 1969 was one of the movie’s co-stars,” says Thompson, of the moment against which his film’s themes play out. “It was a paradigm shift – a new generation came into play. The civil rights generation did the groundwork, but they were more about self-sacrifice, like: ‘Even if I have to die, I’ll do it so that my grandkids have a future.’ But the younger generation were more on the Black Panther side of things: ‘We don’t have to die; we want the fruits of our labour, and we demand respect.’”
This generational shift is a theme throughout Summer of Soul. Tulchin kept one camera trained on the audiences, and Thompson’s use of this footage captures older Harlemites dressed as if they’re off to church, and younger attenders in the more daring fashions of the day, in sharp contrast to the hippy long-hairs that peopled the Monterey Pop and Woodstock films. “Meanwhile, it’s the middle of August, it’s 100 degrees out, and David Ruffin is singing in a wool tuxedo, coat buttoned up to the top,” laughs Thompson, of what was the former Temptation’s solo debut. “His generation were taught: ‘You must be professional. You’re gonna have to wear your tuxedo even if you’ll be uncomfortable.’ And then Sly & the Family Stone come out in street clothes, and it’s revolutionary, like Black audiences had never seen artists wearing jeans on stage and singing.”
A more profound passing of the baton occurs when the venerated gospel legend Mahalia Jackson – overcome while performing Martin Luther King Jr’s favourite spiritual, Take My Hand, Precious Lord – hands the microphone to a young Mavis Staples to finish the song. Thompson originally planned this powerful sequence, plus footage of Jackson performing We Shall Overcome, as the movie’s climax. But the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests prompted producer Joseph Patel to ask Thompson: “Have we overcome?”
“It was a ‘kumbaya’ moment, a perfect ‘Hollywood’ ending,” Thompson says, of the Mahalia/Mavis handover. “But we wanted to jolt people.” Instead, the movie closes with electrifying footage of Simone reciting the Black nationalist poem Are You Ready? by David Nelson of the Last Poets, and demanding of the audience: “Are you ready to kill if necessary? Are you ready to smash white things?”
Thompson still feels frustrated that Tulchin was never able to make his film half a century ago. “What actually made Woodstock legendary wasn’t the festival itself but the subsequent movie, which carefully edited and presented the festival, and changed people’s lives. If 1% of the things that occurred at Woodstock happened at the Harlem cultural festival – people crashing the gates, the rampant drug use – you would definitely have heard about it. It would have been Altamont before Altamont. But nothing happened, so it was forgotten. Prince said that it was his dad taking him to see Woodstock when he was 11 that made him realise his mission on this planet. Can you imagine how many other kids might have had similar revelations if they’d gotten to see this footage in the day?”
Beyond such missed opportunities, Thompson sees the disappearing of the Harlem cultural festival as another destructive example of Black erasure. “Joy is an element that gets lost too often in the narrative of Black America,” he says. “You see the bloodshed, the pain, the tears and the struggle – you learn that we got tased, we got bit by dogs, we got shot. But Black joy is a legit entry in our story. It’s where our creativity comes from, our Afros, our fashion and our music. It’s important to show Black joy as well.”
With his directorial debut a widely acclaimed triumph, Thompson says he “liked the experience enough to make more movies”. After steering clear of political material in the 60s because they believed their job was “to entertain, and remove people from the tragedies taking place”, Davis Jr and McCoo have just completed Blackbird, their first studio project in more than four decades. It’s an album of Lennon and McCartney covers with a political theme because, says McCoo, “we feel strongly, like the young people protesting right now, that we’re in such a difficult time”.
As for the rest of Tulchin’s footage, there are no firm plans. But Fyvolent promises, “it will not sit in a basement for another 50 years. We’ll do our best to get more of it out there.”
• Summer of Soul ( … or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) is in cinemas on 16 July, and on Star on Disney+ on 30 July.
• This article was updated on 16 July to reflect that David Dinerstein also negotiated the rights to the concert footage.