Saturday, May 08, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.01: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Thursday was opening night of Independent Film Festival Boston 2021, and since we couldn't be there in person, here's a little bit of IFFBoston Opening Night goodness:

We all miss this, and I hope to see a full set by Jon Bernhardt before the opening night of IFFBoston 2022.

Anyway, to continue the musical theme, Summer of Soul is a pretty darn fun movie, and while I don't know that there's a lot of time to see it even if you're reading it right as I post - it came online for 48 hours at 7pm Thursday and I don't know whether that's 48 hours to start or finish - it will be on Hulu come 2 July, and I wouldn't be shocked if Searchlight gave it a day-and-date or week-early release. Hopefully that means Disney+ Star outside the USA and a soundtrack album.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Summer of Soul isn't quite a concert film, but it's hard to blame director Ahmir-Khalib "Questlove" Thompson for never wanting to stop the music: The raw material is a treasure trove of great performances not seen in fifty years, and more often than not, they say just as much on their own as anybody talking about them later might. The trick, which Questlove, editor Joshua L. Pearson, and the rest of the crew pull off nicely, is to insert just enough present-day reminiscences to give a little bit of context without slowing the party down.

The party in question was the Harlem Cultural Festival, six concerts that took place in Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969. The country in general and black community in particular was a powder keg, and the city of New York wanted something to defuse the nervous energy in Harlem. Enter producer and emcee Tony Lawrence, who aside from being a charismatic host on stage also had the knack for convincing agents and labels that they should send their stars because they were also negotiating with someone else, leading to a lineup that had everyone from Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson to Nina Simone. The Black Panther Party would provide security, 300,000 people would attend, and it would all be filmed - but nobody at the time was interested in the rights to "Black Woodstock".

I don't doubt that Questlove could have gone through the film, found two hours worth of great performance, and let it be, making for a solid film - and if the producers can get a soundtrack album out, it will likely be a great one to listen to. That's close to what he does, rather than make the shows a climax in a film mostly focused on the challenges of putting on an event such as this, but they're interrupted with voiceover just enough to underscore the point that this is a movie about the event, rather than just a recording of it. He and his team will generally let a song play in its entirety, but the whole event is compacted to seem like a single event, although the various themes of the different concerts (which, from the occasional glimpses of the advertising, seem to be presented in roughly chronological fashion) allow the film to have rough chapters - pop, blues, gospel, Spanish Harlem, more direct African influences.

It is by nature an overview, but a useful one; it is easy for those of us who are outsiders to the Black community, and I suspect even for those who are part of it but mostly familiar with their favorite contemporary music, to see all of this as one thing evolving, but Questlove picks performances and occasional bits of interview material to show how this is sometimes the case - Mavis Staples talks about how she didn't realize that her father was playing blues riffs until they were touring - but also how even what was popular in one summer covered a lot of ground. Audiences may be surprised by some of this,especially the gospel section, where what is often presented as dignified and maybe a bit watered-down has more than a bit of the revival tent and spiritual possession to it, but it strikes a balance by showing that even in this one summer, fifty years ago, Black culture had already started to grow in many different directions from the same roots, doubling back and intermingling with other traditions.

You can see that just looking at what's on stage - and just in terms of being a fun movie to look at, the colorful backdrops hold up pretty well for being of the period and the original footage looks great, whether restored or preserved - and Questlove proves the have the knack for both choosing interesting interview subjects and getting them to chat until something interesting and conversational to come out. Early on, it's fun to watch Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo start out delighted to see this footage even if they cringe at their old outfits but move on to talking about how they were perceived as a white-sounding band and thus were more proud to be asked to play in Harlem. Later, he'll talk to Jesse Jackson about the overlap between music, religion, and the civil rights movement, discuss the change in language from "Negro" to "Black" that was going on at the time, , and give audiences an opening to think about how Black Americans are not really of Africa but are often keen to explore those roots.

It is not, by any means, a deep dive into any of those subjects, but it's less shallow than it may seem - by grounding the film in music, Questlove is able to use a lot of musical techniques, where a quote or a reference can serve as powerful shorthand and a contrast between music and lyrics can hint at a middle ground without minimizing the extremes. It makes Summer of Soul a movie that manages to cover a lot of ground even within a small window of time and space.

Also at eFilmCritic

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