You may have heard that “Summer of Soul” is the must-see music documentary of 2021. You heard correctly. I saw it last night on Hulu, and it is magnificent. From Stevie Wonder to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, from Gladys Knight and the Pips to the Chambers Brothers, “Summer of Soul” is packed with two hours of great music, the fascinating story of how it came together, and the cultural and political context in which it played out.
The film shows us highlights from six free concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same summer that gave us Woodstock. Needless to say, the music was a lot better at the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Though there’s too much cutting away from the music for my tastes, director Questlove chose wisely, devoting the longest uninterrupted stretches to Sly and the Family Stone and to Nina Simone. Also transcendent: a 30-year-old Mavis Staples dueting with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, on “Precious Lord,” dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
You might also be interested in this post by journalist Greg Mitchell, who finds that claims of the footage being “locked in a basement” for the past 50 years are greatly exaggerated. It turns out that some of the key performances, including Sly’s and Simone’s, had been available on YouTube for years.
Unfortunately, since Mitchell’s piece was published, Disney has blocked access. Which is all the more reason to see “Summer of Soul.”