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Dispatches from Sundance – Summer of Soul

"The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers." Roy Ayers

For its first virtual edition, Alex is publishing an ongoing series of his high (and low) lights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

During the summer of 1969, a music festival was held in New York City called the Harlem Cultural Festival. Hosted by Tony Lawrence, it ran on weekends throughout the summer and had a total attendance of nearly 300,000. Footage of the concert shot by Hal Tulchin was offered to various television networks, but no one was interested in broadcasting it. Their refusal was not dissuaded by producers attempting to sell the event as the “Black Woodstock”, building off of the iconic concert which took place concurrently a hundred miles away. The footage was eventually locked away in a basement, never to be seen by the public. Until now.

Musician Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known by his stage name Questlove, has unearthed and put together the footage for his debut “Jawn,” Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), and what a discovery he has made. If Questlove simply presented the footage, it would make for an intriguing time capsule of a concert film. But by bridging together archive footage with retrospective interviews, Questlove has made a rousing work of filmmaking, transporting us to a tumultuous period in America brimming with assassinations, racial struggles and talks of revolution. His film strives to preserve one glorious moment when people of various cultures, from African American to Puerto Rican to Cuban, came together in the unique “melting pot of black style” that was Harlem, as described by one of the interviewees.

The vast assortment of musicians performing at the festival include big names like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, and the 5th Dimension. The live performances play out in their electrifying entirety before cutting to the artists sharing personal stories behind their festival appearance. My favorite testimony comes from the members of 5th Dimension, whose hit cover of  Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in was made possible by watching a Broadway performance of Hair after a chance encounter with one of the producers over a missing wallet.

The film’s standout performance is a duet of Lord, Take My Hand (said to have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song) between Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. Staples’ vocals express a potent measure of grief and anguish, the pain of Dr. King’s murder still weighing heavily on her shoulders. Yet there is joyful defiance as well, conveying King’s message of peace, love and unity with a power no bullet could silence. I was transfixed throughout this performance, and it is one I will never forget.

The near erasure of the Harlem Cultural Festival from American history is a travesty. Its rediscovery in Summer of Soul is a miracle. The festival may be an anomaly, a glorious dream before the cold reawakening in the 1970s to bitter, still all-too-prevalent racial divides. But Questlove’s film typifies the power of music as a balm as well as tool for particular communities in articulating the multicultural promise of a truly United States.

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