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Monday, 9 August 2021

Summer of Soul

 



I went to the cinema for the first time in an age to see Summer of Soul (Or... when the revolution could not be televised) . It tells the story of the Harlem Soul Festival in 1969. The festival was filmed but, as Woodstock (which took place the same summer) and other festivals all became feature films that were shown to acclaim in cinemas around the world, the film of the Harlem Soul Festival languished in various vaults, basements, and boxes under beds. The footage was never shown, and the Harlem Soul Festival was almost forgotten - except by those who had performed or attended.

The film was rediscovered in Japan of all places and at first nobody knew where it was from. And then they found out and the film was made. 

And what a film it is. It is beautiful, uplifting, filled with emotion that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to outrage and anger. Most of all though, it is a film of joy and love. Love for life, for music, for the cathartic power of song and dance and freedom of expression that says who you are. The camerawork is amazing, with a focus on faces that reminded me, quite wrongly, of  Dreyer's Joan of Arc.

The crowd shots are incredible too, brilliantly edited into the footage and the commentary (from Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Gladys Knight, and visitors to the festival) is filled with a dream-like wonder. One man who visited as a kid, Musa Jackson, tells of going when he was 6 years and old and seeing Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension appearing on stage and being so beautiful. He says that seeing the film reminded him that this wasn't a dream, that this did happen, that this park filled with beautiful black women, and beautiful black men really did happen. And then he comes back to Marilyn McCoo and how beautiful she was; his first crush. 

And she was. And so was Nina Simone who sang with a power and and an anger - and David Ruffin who had just left the Temptations and sang a joyous My Girl in drainpipes and a frock coat. There was Sly and the Family Stone who came on stage leaving people wondering why they had a white drummer and a ginger guitarist, and why they had a woman playing a trumpet who could sing like a banshee.

One attendee who was in a band with 'four guys in suits' saw them come on stage and think what the hell when they saw their psychedelic hippy dress. By the end of the set, the suits were out the window and it was psychedelic soul wear all the way.

Jesse Jackson talked about being with Martin Luther King on the night he was murdered, and MLK mentioning Take My Hand Precious Lord as the song he wanted sung at that evening's service just before he was shot. And then Mahalia Jackson sang that song (as she had at his funeral), inviting Mavis Staples  to sing along with her. They put their life into that song and the camera caught Mahalia Jackson full face from below as behind them Jesse Jackson was joyous in his appreciation of the life of it all. It was sorrowful but celebratory at the same time. Al Sharpton came on and talked about black people not having therapists or counsellors. Instead they had music, music was the therapy, the catharsis, the outpouring, the expression and that was embedded all through the film.

There was the the fashion, the politics, the religion, the history, the cotton picking, the ridiculously charasmatic MC Tony Lawrence, the showmanship and the poetry, all against a backdrop of black power, black consciousness, the end-of-decade litany of poverty, violence, racism, assassination, drugs, and the moon landing (which nobody at the festival was too impressed by). It's also a history of music and where it comes from, how it travels across continents, how it moves from the fields to the city to the theatre and back again. It is a hidden history come to light, through song and music and dance that says who you are.  In his review, Mark Kermode describes it as making Woodstock and Gimme Shelter '...both look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that was somehow written out of the history books.'

But more than that, Summer of Soul is a beautiful, beautiful film. Go see it, at the cinema if possible, in the front row. And stay till the very, very end or you'll miss Stevie Wonder at his funniest. 





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