Embark on a journey of the past and present via Questlove’s award-winning doc “Summer of Soul,” now available on home video.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is one of the premier music-makers of his generation. Before he and the other members of The Roots were the in-house band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, he’d developed a career with and without The Roots for decades. Music, it would seem, would be in his DNA as his mother, Jacquelin, his father, Lee Andrews, and his maternal grandfather, Beachy Thompson, were all at one point or another performing on stage as singers. Also a writer and actor, Questlove is credited with six books (the newest, Music is History, released October 2021) and has performed in a variety of films (Bamboozled) and television programs (The Cleveland Show; Drunk History). It makes sense that he would go on to direct his first feature in the area he knows best: music history. What’s fascinating isn’t that his first film, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), would go on to win numerous awards and be nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, but that Questlove himself wasn’t aware of his topic until his producing partner brought it to his attention. This makes the journey that the director takes us on as eye-opening to the audience as it does to him, making some of the more emotional moments revealed within pack just a little more punch as we observe someone learning about their cultural history.

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Sly Stone performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Where music and history fans converge on significant social moments is Woodstock, New York, 1969. They talk about the positive vibes, the community, the musicians, and the notions of civil togetherness. While few can deny the significance of Woodstock, at the same time that concert was going on, The Harlem Cultural Festival took place each Sunday from June 29th through August 24th, 1969. An absolute joyous event, musicians from all over the globe came to Mount Morris Park, now known as Marcus Garvey Park, to play music and come together with the people of Harlem. The festival itself ran from 1967 until 1974, but the 1969 series is considered the most successful. In his directorial debut, Questlove speaks with the people who performed at, as well as those who attended, the 1969 series, celebrating Black talent, Black love, and Black pride, while also putting the social climate of then and now under observation.

As the documentary is more widely known as simply Summer of Soul, moving forward, that’s how this review will refer to it.

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Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

There were several documentaries about bands or musicians released in 2021 — A-Ha: The Movie, The Sparks Brothers, Tina, to name three — but it’s the approach to Summer of Soul which made it stand out. Questlove makes a point to include the social conditions which surrounded the festival, identifying the loses of Civil Rights leaders like Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr (April 1968), and Robert Kennedy (June 1968), connecting those loses to the social tensions coming to a roaring boil, using news footage to show interviews with real individuals living in Harlem at the time. This set the stage for why the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was significant in both releasing some of the pressure of those rising tensions while providing the means to show how the mixed cultures of Harlem, despite all the calls for segregation or (worse) extermination, produce and are deserving of joy. If all he did was show us footage amid talking head interviews, Summer of Soul would be fascinating, but likely wouldn’t have resonated with general and critical audiences in the way it has. What separates it is in the way Questlove technically tells his story about the festival. It’s extraordinarily emotional while being entirely respectful and delicate in the process. He doesn’t always cut away from the speaker when talking about a moment in time, opting instead to stay focused on the speaker(s)’s reaction to seeing the festival. Not only does it mean that we, the audience, in real-time, are seeing their emotional and physical reaction to the footage, but it provides a temporal bridge between 1969 and 2021. As time passes, with each generation, history becomes this abstract thing. The Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) was as foreign to me as World Wars I & II, whereas I was firmly aware of the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). The students I taught in community college knew the events of September 11th, 2001, but not the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995). My children will hopefully not understand today’s persecution of the Black and LGTBA+ communities, but they will (sadly) understand some other form of bigotry. By crafting a bridge, by staying focused on the reactions of the speaker(s), the history of 1969 becomes more tangible, more real, especially as the concerns of the past continue in the present. It’s too easy to forget that the battles of now are some of the same fought for generations, yet, there is hope, and Questlove makes sure that we know it by helping us not to forget.

If there’s something that’s disappointing at all about Summer of Soul, it’s the home release presentation. Not only did it win six awards from the sixth Critics Choice Awards, including Best Documentary Feature, but it’s nomination for an Oscar implies a certain quality about the project. As a voting member of the CCA, Summer of Soul is one of the strongest documentaries of 2021 for me and it absolutely deserves all the accolades it receives. Perhaps that’s why it’s frustrating that all that’s included in the home release are two brief featurettes that were previously released online in the run-up to the July 2021 wide release in theaters and on Hulu: “Soul Searching” and “Harlem: Then & Now.” Both of these offer great context for portions of the doc, including identifying that it took five months to restore all the footage back to nearly-new and how Questlove first learned of the 1969 series from his producing partner. It would’ve been lovely to either have these extended with new material or to have additional featurettes included to serve that purpose. Additionally the home release includes a feature-length audio commentary from Questlove, but I can’t really speak to the information or presentation of it. The review copy sent to me by Searchlight Pictures is digital and trying to use three different Apple devices (Apple 4K TV, iPad, 2nd Gen Apple TV) resulted in different forms of glitches that made enjoying the audio commentary difficult. The Apple 4K TV and iPad had audio, but no picture, meaning that I could hear what Questlove was describing (good thing he mentions enjoying title narrations during the opening or I wouldn’t have known what I should have been looking at) but couldn’t see anything. Even skipping ahead, the video would play briefly before stopping while the audio continued. I was able to get the second generation Apple TV to play video with audio, but not until after a brief visible glitching from the video portion until it smoothed itself out. The only way I’ve gotten the audio commentary to work seamlessly as intended was by going to the MoviesAnywhere website and streaming it from there. I don’t know if the DVD version of the release has an audio issues, but the digital one is inconsistent enough in quality to frustrate. Personally, the quality of the initial release, no matter what you think of it having won awards, is such that at least a Blu-ray release would’ve been more appropriate, offering audiences a high-def video and audio quality home representation versus standard on disc. This could be a result of the streaming deal made with Hulu that only they can have a certain quality available (there’s a similar deal with Sony Animation and Netflix, which is why The Mitchells vs. The Machines home release isn’t available on 4K UHD), but it still stinks and doesn’t pay proper respect to the film.

Questlove’s documentary is up against some strong competitors when the 94th Academy Awards take place next month. For me, it’s a toss-up between his Summer of Love and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s remarkable Flee. Either win would make me happy, but, frankly, the awards really don’t matter as long as the films continue to exist and remain accessible to wide audiences. The real win is in each documentary finding new audiences and garnering more attention from now on. Allowing the new generation to see the connections of the present to the past, expanding their consciousness away from the immediate and into the long-term to see, to understand, to be able to process that what they do now is connected to the past, that change is possible and necessary, and that there’s enumerable joy from that realization where all our souls can rise together in celebration of song.

Summer of Soul Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary – View the film with audio commentary by director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. (1:57:47)
  • Soul Searching – A behind-the-scenes look at Summer of Soul. We’ll learn about where the footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival has been, how it was uncovered, and why director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson decided to tell this story now. (2:57)
  • Harlem: Then & Now – We revisit Mount Morris Park, location of the Harlem Cultural Festival. We learn how the neighborhood was a crossroads of culture and precarious politics and explore why Summer of Soul is so relevant during this present time of great political upheaval. (2:52)

Available for streaming on Hulu July 2nd, 2021.

Available on DVD and digital February 8th, 2022.

For more information, head to Searchlight Pictures’s official Summer of Soul website or Questlove’s own website.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

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Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming

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