Alert: on July 16 it opens in theaters in Spain Summer of Soul, powerful documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, directed by Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the learned drummer of The Roots. The film was awarded at the last Sundance issue and is being distributed by Searchlight Pictures, a division of Disney.
Questlove explains that it was tempting to name the film Black Woodstock ―The two festivals coincided in time and were held two hours apart― but they finally decided to avoid the rock frame of reference. In addition, there was already another so-called “black Woodstock”, the Wattstax multitudinous concert, held in California in 1972, also with its documentary film. The definitive title recalls the importance of soul, even as a cultural force, in the second half of the 1960s.
In reality, the menu at the Harlem Cultural Festival was eclectic and extensive: five concerts held on as many Sundays between June 29 and August 17, with the bizarre Miss Harlem pageant on August 24. The official poster, which does not reflect all the artists who finally paraded through the Mount Morris Park stage, reveals that there were days where jazz, gospel or Latin music dominated. They were all level figures, insured by contract and paid according to their cache.
That data removes some of the legends that, over time, have clung to the event like a scab. No, the festival was not the work of the Black Panthers, who at that time had enough to try to survive in semi-secrecy. Nor was it a set-up by the Harlem narcos to win the sympathy of the neighbors (they were neither so smart nor so generous). In fact, the main sponsor was Maxwell House, an instant coffee brand.
In reality, the Harlem Cultural Festival should be understood as a municipal initiative, designed to secure votes: the then mayor of New York, John Lindsay, was – although today it seems a lie – both Republican and liberal. Its Parks Commissioner, August Heckscher II, belonged to the category of philanthropic intellectuals, with firm beliefs about the right of citizens to enjoy public spaces; he fought with conservationists who defended the intangibility of urban parks.
Compared to the chaos of Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival was an organizing prodigy. We are talking, true, of highly professional figures, who spent almost the entire year on the road, like BB King. There was a well-oiled band to accompany singers in need. And schedules were accommodated: Stevie Wonder and other Detroit entertainers were regulars at the nearby Apollo Theater, which each summer hosted a “Motown party.” From San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone arrived in full swing, also hired by the hippies de Woodstock.
What failed was the audiovisual coverage. Hal Tulchin, TV producer, sent his modest team to record what happened there every Sunday. Without financial resources, he could not get the artists to give up the broadcasting rights of his concerts. The hope that some national television network would buy into the idea was dashed when executives saw, for example, a furious Nina Simone practically inciting Harlem residents to take up arms.
For half a century, the Harlem Cultural Festival tapes sat in storage, buried by the nightmare of solving licenses. Some fragments were leaked, available in low quality on YouTube; the show Sly Stone was released on DVD, pirated. Only after the death of Tulchin, in 2017, was it possible to acquire that legacy of some 50 hours of filming, which ran the real danger of ending up in a garbage dump.
When Questlove was tempted with the project, he immediately thought about selecting the most interesting; What Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin’s gospel recital filmed by Sydney Pollack, would remain as a document of its time. There were enough percussion masters – Max Roach, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaría – to satisfy his personal curiosity; in fact, the film begins with an astonishing drum solo by Stevie Wonder. But Questlove also detected anger, both in the performances – special mention to guitarist Sonny Sharrock – and in the reactions of the audience: a year after the murder of Martin Luther King, in Harlem there was no enthusiasm for the moon landing of the Apolo 11, which coincided precisely with the Motown all-star concert.
To explain those nuances, Questlove has chosen to contextualize the Harlem Cultural Festival with interviews and bonus material. The documentary has a subtitle: “Or when the revolution could not be televised”, in reference to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, the famous 1970 filipic by the poet Gil Scott-Heron. Excuse the joke: we now know that the revolution may even be marketed by Disney.