Today was the first official day that I was at my program half time, and the time off in the afternoon left me with ample time. While despite the free time, today only has one film, I have a couple of multifilm days in planning for the rest of the week. Today’s viewing was continuing with my 2021 movie catchup, and it took me to the near top of the Metacritic list for the year.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021, Dir. Questlove)
When tasked with naming a music festival from 1969, most people will answer Woodstock without a second thought; Summer of Soul attempts to expand the zeitgeist to include the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival at the same time. The film does that by blending traditional concert documentary footage with the cultural context necessary to understand the festival’s importance.
While billed as a blend between the musical and the political, Summer of Soul sets the music center stage and builds the cultural significance around each performance. This focus works well to capture the essence of the festival and save it for prosperity even if it leaves the civil rights portion of the documentary a little thin. A balance like this would need to be made to tell a coherent story, and the numerous powerful musical performances – highlighted by the amazing Nina Simone – are the strongest and most unique parts of the film.
The context applied to the extended music scenes is done through the use of talking heads, a style that I am known for not being the biggest fan. Thankfully, Summer of Soul leans heavily on the musical performances to provide extended reprieves from the stylistic monotony of the talking heads. While the film is still rooted in traditional documentary filmmaking, the balance between technical choices provides a lot more enjoyment than a stylistically safer film would have been resulting in an overall enjoyable watch.