A beautiful decade for music, the 1960s crashed into focus and clamoured for the attention of generations to come. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, well, it would take too long to list the many charming innovations this period of sound brought the landscape of music. Monumental changes were frequent, fast, and diverse. Summer of Soul hopes to document the Harlem Cultural Festival, footage of which has been lying around for decades. The beauty of documentaries and the work provided here by documentarian Ahmir-Khalib Thompson is that we experience this footage for the first time. He has cut through hours and hours of footage to give us the best and most relevant pockets.
Summer of Soul, evidently, is the best of the best. A fascinating look at a truly important festival. Thompson is the great decider. What is and is not relevant fall to him, and he does an incredible job of it here. Seeing the performances of the great musicians of the 20th century, from Stevie Wonder and B.B. King, in particular, is an amazing experience that will delight and enchant the most passive of music fans. Even then, the detail on display is marvellous and engaging. Breakdowns of how the festival ran, who performed and the impact of the performances on not just their careers but those they touched with their music has such definable, excellent qualities to it.
But it is not just the music that has such importance to the Harlem Cultural Festival. Its ability to inspire and move its audience was not just a musical power, but one of political desire and impact. We are given a car crash course in historical movements, from the dawn of the Vietnam war to the death of Martin Luther King. All of it has relevance. These are not inclusions for the sake of it, but Thompson understands the necessity of including these cultural leaders and the impact they had on the feeling of unity and power. A unity is presented throughout Summer of Soul through the footage it uses and how it manages its time. We are given pockets of nostalgia for a time many of us were not alive for, yet the amiable, welcoming narrative from Thompson makes this festival documentary a great piece of interesting entertainment.
Such a monumental event brought into the spotlight with competency and consideration for the cultural impact of this late 60s festival. Summer of Soul is an in-depth, decent look at the times of change that surrounded the streets of Harlem. Not just musically, but politically and culturally too. The unity is warm, but clashes with the tensions that underlined the political sphere at the time. Thompson manages this divide with such clarity and confidence, it makes for a surprisingly strong feature debut, one that gives detail and charm to the human nature of festivals. It is a documentary for not just festival lovers, but those interested in musical history and political merits and drawbacks of the 1960s. That is a broad net to cast, yet Thompson has no trouble bringing those themes together.