DOC NYC (2021) review: Questlove Flawlessly Mixes Music + History in ‘SUMMER PF SOUL’

SUMMER OF SOUL

In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary—part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.


Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is simply brilliant. It might almost be a given that as a world-famous and beloved D.J., every musical and visual choice in Summer of Soul masterfully cultivates a vibe and maintains that dazzling energy for the length of the entire film. In addition to showcasing a great party, Summer of Soul provides viewers with the essential historical and cultural context to fully appreciate what they are witnessing. Through passionate first-person narratives from attendees, the film balances what in less experienced hands might have become merely a history lesson with one hell of a show. 

 Piecing together recently discovered footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul is a celebration of black culture as it transitioned from the tumult of the 1960s into the black liberation movement of the 1970s. In a time of great uncertainty and political unrest, the concert series set in Mt. Morris Park was a time for black pride and celebration. The film includes never before seen live performances by a young Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and many more. Every shot is colorful, powerful, and tells a story. The music is phenomenal. The costumes are dazzling– maybe men should reconsider brightly colored ruffle shirts?– the Black Panthers provided security in full regalia, including the berets. Each shot is a wonder and a visual feast. 

 Summer of Soul is a vital inclusion to narratives around the Summer of Love and essential addition to understanding the complete history of the era.


SUMMER OF SOUL premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. It is streaming on Hulu in conjunction with Disney General Entertainment’s Onyx Collective; Searchlight Pictures released it theatrically.


About Britni Rillera

Britni Rillera grew up in Los Angeles but spent many years in D.C. where she worked in politics for as long as humanly possible before moving back to the west coast. Although by day she now works in Big Tech, by night she is a writer and film enthusiast. Fun fact: Britni is still riding the high of a viral Tweet she made in 2018.