It’s every bit as good as they say it is.
Can’t say I was eager to see it, being burned out on Questlove, he’s everywhere, then again white people see him as safe and they won’t let anybody else through the door so it’s Questlove’s responsibility to get the message out, one that would otherwise go unheard.
Now if you were alive back in ’69 and hailed from the New York area you know the Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t as big a deal as they make it out to be. But it all comes together at the end of the film where it is stated that it’s part of black history, and black history is erased, and truly people should know about this series of concerts. And 1969.
This is why all those white people are angry.
Now the sixties were turbulent. But after Kent State many licked their wounds and went back to the land. In the eighties the boomers sold out. And in the nineties Clinton oversaw a decade of prosperity. But not for everybody, it’s never for everybody. And in the twenty first century, it all started to crumble. It wasn’t until the teens that people came to realize there was deep economic inequality, they ended up without jobs, or low-paying service jobs, meanwhile the old jobs went to China and Mexico and they were working like dogs to try and make ends meet. The underclass. That’s who both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appealed to back in 2016, which seems like ancient history today. No one was listening to the underclass, they’re still not listening to the underclass, even though there are more of them than there are of richies. Which is one reason the rich people live behind gates and fly private, they want to be safe, because one day they might be attacked, in the midst of a revolution. Don’t think it can’t happen, look at 1/6.
But 1/6 was mostly about middle and upper middle class people. The underclass couldn’t afford to go to D.C., they didn’t have the bread and they needed to go to work. But now that people of color are going to supersede the number of white people, all hell is breaking loose. Like climate change, they told us for years it was going to happen, and now it finally is, and with the loss of their majority white people are freaking out, they want to protect their way of life, and they certainly don’t see the people and activities in this film as their way of life.
The sixties are now a blur, all lumped together. But ’69 was a critical year. It’s when all the faders were pushed to the maximum. With music, with politics, it was exciting to be alive, and underneath all the talking and performances in this film you’ll find a sense of optimism, and the truth is today so many are pessimistic. The death of George Floyd ignited a bomb that had been lying in wait, from long before Ferguson, but white people equate it with 1/6, they see no difference. Now let me see…one group is fighting for equal rights, the other to take down the nation because they believe it’s going in the wrong direction, they want Trump and his power to maintain. Ergo the voting rights bills. They’re trying everything to keep their finger in the dike, because in truth they’re very afraid, it’s all about fear. There’s no progress. There are bogeymen, but in truth this is the last line of defense, either the people of color are stopped now or it’s over. Thus you have that lawsuit saying not enough Asians get into Harvard, they’re turning affirmative action on its head. What about the white people? They don’t want to sacrifice. And now this is blown up in the name of critical race theory, even though it’s just a theory and isn’t in schools to begin with. Never underestimate the need of people to maintain the status quo, no one can sacrifice in the U.S. anymore, especially white people with money. As for those without cash, they’re told immigrants are taking their jobs when this is patently untrue, immigrants are doing the jobs they refuse to do.
So, the complaint about all music documentaries is they don’t show complete songs. To the point where most docs are now essentially concerts. I can see enough of this on YouTube. But I did want to see some of the musical acts so I tuned in.
They start off with Stevie Wonder. Who knew he was such a great drummer? And the performances continue but the history of 1969, the black experience in 1969, is depicted concurrently, which makes the film much more watchable. They show complete songs, but the story doesn’t stop, there is footage and talking heads and it’s like a school class you never had.
The surprise of the show is Nina Simone. Whew! She sings a song about white backlash that is so powerful, so straight to the heart, anybody can get it, even if they are white. And she sings/reads a poem that talks about fighting back and this is exactly what the whites were afraid of back then and are still afraid of today. What if the oppressed stop worrying about the law? What if they take matters into their own hands? The rioters flipped the script, they decided to move fast, take over the country, that was 1/6 in a nutshell, turn the U.S. into an authoritarian country where if you break the heinous restrictions you disappear, like in China.
Simone is a revelation because she’s not that well known. But truly, the key performances are by Sly and the Family Stone, from back when you had to go to the show to see a band and an act could be so good live they could build a reputation and break through. That’s how Springsteen broke. Sly & the Family Stone had many more hits, but then they were at Woodstock and stole the movie, hands-down, they wanted to take you HIGHER! And Sly does the same routine in this flick and the audience responds just as eagerly as they did the same year on Yasgur’s Farm, this was the power of Sly, not Woodstock, he could do it anywhere. And when Sly and his band take the stage the whole place elevates, you can feel the energy, everybody else is just a performer, Sly and the Family Stone are life itself, you can’t help but pay attention and that attention is rewarded.
Pops Staples is still alive, and his family knocks it so far out of the park, with power, you stand at attention. Mavis still has this skill, she’s hiding in plain sight, I saw her open for Bonnie Raitt and was wowed, but she doesn’t get the attention she deserves.
And then there’s the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It was exactly this time of year when “Oh Happy Day” was a gigantic hit. I was burned out on it in ’69, but it’s still fresh today. Gladys Knight & The Pips sing the original version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And the Fifth Dimension are finally contextualized. They were known for their hits, seen as white bread, but they definitely were not. And that’s another noticeable thing, everybody’s voice, everybody’s playing is SO GOOD! This isn’t CSNY at Woodstock, unrehearsed, this is what these performers do, and they nail it. And David Ruffin in a suit in the middle of a summer day singing “My Girl” just after he left the Temptations. And then there are the instrumentalists who surprise… Max Roach. Herbie Mann. Ray Baretto, who I only knew by name killing on the congas. Mongo Santamaria. Hugh Masekela performing “Grazing In the Grass.” B.B. King singing about the blues. You may not think you like gospel music but you will find out you do as you watch these performances, that’s the power of Mahalia Jackson.
And John Lindsay. When a mayor could still deliver hope.
And the moon landing.
That’s what’s shocking, everything that happened back then! All the assassinations of leaders saying what too many didn’t want to hear, from JFK to Martin to RFK…
As for the moon landing… Yup, we actually did it. Not that it wasn’t on the schedule for a decade, but we didn’t expect it to really happen. But it did! It was so thrilling, you were proud to be an American, we were certainly the greatest country in the world, then again there was that pesky Vietnam situation.
But there was a show during the moon landing and you’ve got people in attendance saying they don’t care, testifying that the government shouldn’t spend all that money on the space program, but the people. It’s the same story fifty years later. Except now the general mind-set is welfare is bad and if you even talk about reparations white heads explode.
White people are inherently afraid of black people. But are the tens of thousands in attendance all nogoodnik takers who are going to assault you, steal your assets and rape your daughters? No, they’re just people, trying to get along.
So, you start watching “Summer of Soul” for the musical performances, but ultimately, they play second fiddle to the commentary, the story, the history, the context. And there’s so much there it’s hard to comprehend it all, you’re assaulted with so much you didn’t know, that is uber-important.
Unless you lived through 1969. When young people learned from performers. When you could make it on minimum wage. When things were in flux and you truly believed life could work out right. There was no internet, no streaming media, but boy was society alive and kicking.
So you can go to a theatre and see this, or just pull it up on Hulu, which is what I did. It’s powerful on the small screen, and the pictures are so good you can’t believe the film has been sitting in cans for fifty years.
There’s plenty we can learn, more black history please. Education is the key to peace and harmony. And I’m not talking about teaching to the test, but a film like “Summer of Soul,” which is so well done you can’t help learning more than a thing or two.
So it’s a long weekend and you’ve got the time, pull up “Summer of Soul” whether you’re black or white, whether you’re a music fan or not. Marvel at the trumpet work of Cynthia Robinson. Feel the power of the music and the power of the people. RIGHT ON!