From the funky, opening groove of the film's first song, Stevie Wonder's slinky jam on the Isley's Brothers' "It's Your Thing," it is obvious the new documentary Summer of Soul (...or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) will be packed with little-seen, landmark live performances.
But watch a little longer, as Wonder sits behind a drumkit to whip off a crackling drum solo. As he works the kit, clips of news reports and pundits surface talking about the crucial political and social issues facing Black people in 1969. And you realize you're seeing something more.
Crafted from footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival—an event so filled with stars from soul, R&B, blues and jazz they called it the Black Woodstock—Summer of Soul is a breathtaking chronicle of Black culture in a pivotal moment.
A wide constellation of stars turned up for the festival, which drew more than 300,000 people over six free concerts held in the space now known as Marcus Garvey Park. The roster of performers included Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, B.B. King, Ray Barretto, The Temptations' former frontman David Ruffin, The 5th Dimension, and more.
Just documenting their jaw-dropping live work would add up to an amazing concert film. But Summer of Soul uses the music as both inspiration and foundation, setting the scene for subjects to talk about everything from the debate over non-violence in civil rights work to Harlem's status as a cultural oasis for Black people.