Joshua L. Pearson
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Live albums often fail to recapture the electricity of seeing a performer in concert — the common complaint about these records is that, well, you had to be there. So what’s remarkable about Summer of Soul is how it brings the past roaring into the present, crafting a musical, cultural and historical tapestry in which the vibrant but forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is celebrated for both its landmark status and its contemporary relevance. Most of us weren’t there, but this documentary makes us feel like we were — and still are.
Such an achievement should be credited chiefly to director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. But editor Joshua L. Pearson deserves to be singled out as well, shaping the film so that it segues so effortlessly between then and now, weaving together performance footage, archival news clips, and modern-day interviews from artists and attendees.
Most concert films merely want to preserve a magical night — Summer of Soul’s ambitions are grander, illustrating how the so-called Black Woodstock served as a beacon and a refuge for Black Americans during a period of national unrest and racial anxiety. The shows’ musical acts, which include Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, were stellar, but the power of the songs is amplified by the memories of those in the crowd, who recall with often moving specificity how the Harlem Cultural Festival has stayed with them, even if those performances seemed lost to time.
But Pearson’s accomplishment goes beyond mixing and matching material, delivering a stunning balance of tones, too. Summer of Soul was among the year’s most joyous films, but also among its most enraged and urgent, channeling the sorrow and fury of today’s Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously honoring the ebullient artistry blasting from that stage back in 1969. Pearson’s careful, compassionate hand helps guide Thompson’s emphatic vision. He gives this extraordinary film its seamless groove.
— Tim Grierson