Imagine two free Coachellas happened in the middle of New York City and no one ever talked about them.
That’s how producer Joseph Patel described the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the subject of transcendent new documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which world-premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival Thursday night.
Colloquially known as the “Black Woodstock,” the Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of free concerts over six weekends that drew more than 300,000 people. Staged in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in summer 1969, weeks before Woodstock festival in upstate New York, the event attracted trailblazing Black artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, The Fifth Dimension, and Sly and the Family Stone.
The festival was captured in its entirety by filmmaker Hal Tulchin, who tried to sell the footage to studios but was turned down. The reels sat in Tulchin’s basement for a half century until his death in 2017, when producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent obtained the never-before-seen footage. They brought it to The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who makes his directorial debut with “Summer of Soul.”
“I instantly kind of scoffed,” Thompson said in a post-screening Q&A. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I know everything that happened in music history. There’s no way you’re going to tell me this gathering happened and no one knew about it.’ But sure enough, that was the case. Once they showed me raw footage, I just sat there with my jaw dropped, like, ‘How has this been forgotten?'”
Thompson expertly places the festival in context of what was happening in the United States in 1969, with racial injustice and antiwar protests, and general ambivalence to the landing on the moon. (“Never mind the moon — let’s get that cash to feed poor Black people in Harlem,” one concertgoer says in a newsreel.)
He also asks why so much of Black culture has been erased from the history books or considered insignificant by traditionally white gatekeepers.
“Why was this not important? Why was this deemed as just ‘meh?'” Thompson said. “For me, that was the biggest question of all.”
The two-hour “Summer of Soul” is edited together from roughly 45 hours of vibrant concert footage, which transports us back to pre-COVID times, when dancing with a sweaty crowd was a hobby and not a health hazard. The performances are jubilant and frequently profound, with highlights including a dynamic drum solo from a spry Wonder and a stirring set by Simone, who leads the audience in a hopeful yet melancholy rendition of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
In new interviews, The Fifth Dimension members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. recall how it felt to be welcomed and embraced by a majority Black audience for the first time, performing their No. 1 hit “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” from musical “Hair.” And Mavis Staples fondly recounts singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” with gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, in a gut-wrenching tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. that will take your breath away.
“It was the ultimate Black barbecue,” one festival-goer says of the event overall. “But as soon as you heard the music, you knew it was something bigger.”
“Summer of Soul” will have a second virtual Sundance screening Saturday at 10 a.m. ET. The film is still seeking distribution.