“SUMMER OF SOUL - A film Review by Eon Irving



Back in the summer of 1969 the world was introduced to the concept of the rock music festival with ‘Woodstock’, billed at the time as “3 days of Peace & Music”. Around 100 miles away during that same summer, a similar festival was happening in New York that would later be dubbed ‘the black Woodstock’. This incredible, historic gathering of black musicians, performing in front of several thousand appreciative, mainly black, music fans (both young and old) was filmed and documented and then largely forgotten about....until now.

Musical guru Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson (from the group, The Roots), makes his directorial debut with ‘Summer Of Soul’,  a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that showcased black culture, fashion and the arts during one of the most turbulent times in American history. Against a backdrop of unrest (including the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy only the previous year), a celebration of black pride was spearheaded by performances from major artists including Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Glady Knight & The Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and The Staple Singers, encompassing a rich mix of soul, blues, gospel and jazz. Indeed, these artists and many more showed their obvious love and pride connecting directly to the people of what is described in the film as ‘Soulsville USA’, namely the centre of black America, Harlem.  

Summer of Soul 5.jpg (81 KB)  The footage shown is truly astounding and at times very moving. Whether it be Nina Simone teaching the audience about a new song she has just composed called ‘Young, Gifted & Black’, Mavis Staples singing with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, a young looking Roy Ayers playing alongside Herbie Mann or a newly solo David Ruffin, looking debonair and cool, wowing everyone with The Temptation’s classic ‘My Girl’. It is all impressive. To cap it all, a 19 year Stevie Wonder simply dazzles with his talent, all of this before he would deliver his groundbreaking albums of the 1970’s. Special mention must go to Sly & The Family Stone, who not only turned heads, but minds with his very funky multi ethnic and women included band. Sly Stone was not only rocking the crowd, but giving them a peep into the future.

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The documentary does not shy away from the social concerns of the times, as displayed by the opinions of several black Americans who attended the show, when asked what they thought of the recent Apollo 11 moon landing. Overall an amazing piece of history captured that held me from the first frame to the last. It was nothing short of criminal when this footage was ignored at the time, however it now finds itself which rightly lauded, even picking up a Best Documentary Feature award at The Sundance Film Festival. Highly recommended.

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 Be sure to sit through the entire end credits to catch a hilarious moment with a Motown superstar.


‘Summer Of Soul’ is released in the UK to selected cinemas on 16th July 2021.

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A review by Eon Irving who presents "Rhythm & News" on a Wednesday night and "The Jazz Infusion" on a Sunday night

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