Questlove’s Summer of Soul


Promotional poster courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Andre Chabra, Staff Writer

If obscure moments in musical history are your thing, or you want to kick back and relax and just listen to some music for two hours, then Summer of Soul is the documentary for you. The film was released on June 25, 2021 and was directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer for The Roots. Garnering the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, the film is centered around the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

Using footage that sat in someone’s basement for 50 years, Summer of Soul shows the audience several of the festival’s musical acts interspersed with personal accounts of people who were actually there. It brings to the forefront a festival that was unfortunately forgotten, because it was overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place around the same time. This documentary aims to rectify that by providing viewers with an up close and personal view of many performers and their powerful music. 

The festival took place at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, and was primarily organized by Tony Lawrence, a singer and community activist, with the purpose of celebrating African American culture and music. 1969 was tumultuous time in American history with many cities dealing with riots and protests in the aftermaths of the assassinations of several prominent figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.. In addition, the country faced a  racial reckoning as more and more people joined the Civil Rights Movement or fought against it. And let’s not forget the anti-war protests throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War. The festival, as some said in the documentary, was about bringing everyone in Harlem together that summer to keep the protesting and potential riots out.

The movie is not your usual documentary. Instead of having a host that leads the viewer throughout the film with plenty of exposition, this documentary does not hold your hand. There is no single host, but rather a handful of people that either attended the performance or participated in it provide their own personal experience of what it was like while simultaneously giving relevant background information on some of the performers and festival organizers. The film throws the viewer into song after song from musical groups unknown by some of the younger generations today. 

Questlove’s film focuses more on the soulful understanding of the Harlem Cultural Festival rather than a list of factual information about it. The viewer really feels like they are there with the singers, whose messages of freedom and empowerment are seemingly directed straight at you. These artist’s voices travel through the void of time and space, out of the TV, and into you.

Summer of Soul at times feels more like a regular concert recording than a documentary with its extended periods of songs without input from any of the narrators. This works in its favor, bringing these performances to light, and letting the music and its messages speak for itself. 

It is definitely worth a watch just for the music, which reaches out emotionally to the viewer and imprints the passion and intensity of the past onto your present.