Sundance Review: “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

By Morgan Roberts

The same summer that the famous Woodstock concert occurred, there was a concert series happening in NYC’s Harlem neighborhood. “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (2021) gives us a glimpse at this concert series, lost to time. The footage from these concerts have not been seen for 50 years.

Unlike the 1970 documentary “Woodstock,” “Summer of Soul” aims to provide historical context amongst the performances, giving this film an edge. And this is not just historical context of “here are the events of the 1960’s,” but rather, how were the 1960’s impacting Black and Lantino/a people who were making up most of the artists and audience at these festivals. For example, as White America was in awe of man landing on the moon, Black America was more concerned about poverty, social justice, and their communities on Earth. History is so often told from the White lens that we white-wash events. But what Thompson does with this film was not to just provide us with incredible footage never seen before, but also provide us with the history lessons that we missed in school.

“Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” should be required viewing for not just music lovers, but those learning about American history.”

A still from Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mass Distraction Media. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

There were so many phenomenal performances. One of my personal favorites was watching The 5th Dimension. We got to see them perform “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” as Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. described their band’s start and the struggles they faced. Due to the type of music they enjoyed and performed, they were frequently seen as “too white” for the Black community, and once people saw them on their album covers, they were “too Black” for the white community. Their story of their artistry and strife really struck me. There were so many great performances, though. Stevie Wonder performed a drum solo, Mahalia Jackson sang with Mavis Staples, there were Gladys Knight and the Pips tearing it up, Sly and the Family Stone grooving before heading to Woodstock, Nina Simone singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” with the crowd. It is truly awe-inspiring to see these artists performing.

The interviews from the artists, concert goers, and community members added additional layers. They gave the film personal meaning and depth. You could not ask for a better concert documentary. “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” should be required viewing for not just music lovers, but those learning about American history. It provided the perspective of the 1960’s missed by the current educational system, and gave voice to the people who actually lived it.

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