The highly anticipated soundtrack to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s film debut Summer of Soul was officially released on January 28, 2022. The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in July 2021, became an instant hit and was quickly dubbed as “the best concert film ever made.” With the awards season on the horizon, many people are calling Summer of Soul the strongest contender for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The documentary is about the largely forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in 1969 at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. It happened at the same time as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and was known informally as the “Black Woodstock.” The concert’s headliners included music legends Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, among others. The festival occurred at a pivotal time for civil rights reform, and it celebrated Black pride. Up until this point, the Harlem Cultural Festival has been robbed of its rightful historical significance because of the lack of televised footage. Questlove salvaged the archived footage of the festival and presented it in his stunning film, documenting and narrating the importance of the event. The groundbreaking movie tackles the erasure of Black history and the powerful role of music during this turning point of American history.
Questlove began his career as a drummer and percussionist for the band The Roots in the 1990s. He also published three books, and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album of 2018. He described himself as a “hip hop historian,” and his mission to tell the important stories of Black music and culture is clear in his latest endeavor with Summer of Soul. He explained that he initially was just excited to make a concert documentary series that would commemorate and immortalize the incredibly special festival. But, as the political unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement unfolded in 2020, the movie gained another dimension of present-day meaning and relevance. “We were editing and filming this thing in the middle of a revolution,” he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The shifting cultural tides from 1969, which were analyzed in the documentary, paralleled those that were occurring in real time.
The documentary does a phenomenal job of allowing the music to speak for itself; it serves as a platform to amplify the performances so they may inspire and be appreciated by the greater American public. It also provides the perfect amount of context and analysis about the footage, so the viewer may fully comprehend the importance of the concert through the social justice crusade happening simultaneously.
The 17 songs on the motion picture soundtrack exceptionally capture intense feelings of anger, urgency, optimism, and resilience felt by African Americans that have been oppressed since the birth of the United States. The film does exactly what it set out to do and more — it sheds light on a powerful historical moment that was abandoned in the depths of a storage basement, showing America’s routine dismissal of African Americans’ contributions. Questlove’s Summer of Soul is a sensational film that furthers the reshaping of history.