Summer of Soul and the Value of Archive Film

So far, the British summertime has been somewhat lacklustre. We have had rain for weeks, there’s still a global pandemic tearing through the country, and football did not come home (but gosh, didn’t our sweet young lads make a good go of it?) If you’re in need of some sunshine and spirit-lifting, there’s a documentary out this Friday with your name written all over it.

After a triple-sell-out as the opening night film at Sheffield Doc Fest last month, Summer of Soul (...or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is nothing short of astounding. The documentary features a collection of long-lost archive footage documenting the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival. The festival took place over six weekends across one hot summer in New York, kicking off just weeks after Woodstock. Whilst Woodstock became infamous, with minimal coverage, the Harlem Culture Festival has been long forgotten. What Summer of Soul unearths is incredible, never-before-seen performances from Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, and so many more. All performing their hearts out in the summer heat to a jam-packed park of mostly Black and Brown people.

It’s genuinely astonishing that this footage – 47 reels of film - had existed for so many years, gathering dust in TV Director Hal Tulchin’s basement. Tulchin shot the majority of it himself in the hopes of selling it to TV stations, but after the festival, no one wanted to touch it. It’s in absolutely picture-perfect condition, not a scratch on it, as though it was shot yesterday.

Director Amir ‘Questlove’ Thompson has done a miraculous job of shaping a documentary from it all. Stitching the archive footage together with interviews from the stars that performed and residents of Harlem who remember the festival – many young, rebellious teenagers when it took place. The final film is something that can be felt deep in the bones. It’s an incredible document of the way that music heals and unifies in times of unrest. A cultural record of the fashions, sights and smells of Harlem in the late sixties. All of this, set against a shifting political and cultural backdrop of assassinations, civil rights, protest, unrest, and the moon landing.

Whether or not you are a fan of soul music, Summer of Soul serves as an incredible window into a forgotten piece of history. Still, if you do love the music, it’s a rip-roaring, toe-tapping, hip-shaking delight.

Summer of Soul comes to the Showroom Cinema from Friday 16 July. Tickets are on sale now.

This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 15 July 2021.

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