I wanted to LOVE Summer Of Soul. The pre-release hype gave the impression that it was about the music rather than a cultural/political documentary. There are many documentaries about the 1960’s but what made Summer Of Soul intriguing was forty hours of unused footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. I wish there had been more music and less chatter but, taken on its own terms, it’s a good documentary. It could have been a great one.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a lot of great music in Summer Of Soul. But there’s not much *uninterrupted* music. By my count, there were only two numbers without any commentary: one by BB King early on and another by Sly & The Family Stone near the end. Ironically, the Sly tune was Higher, which was also featured in Woodstock.
I’m about to be guilty of something that led to a recurring argument between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their teevee show. Roger would often criticize Gene for reviewing the movie he wanted to see instead of the one that was made. I usually agreed with Ebert but I’m going to go Siskel on your asses in the next paragraph.
I think Summer Of Soul would have made a better 6 to 8 part docuseries. I watched it on Hulu, after all. There’s nothing wrong with the commentary; some of the talking heads are great, especially Billie Davis Jr, Marilyn McCoo, Mavis Staples, and Gladys Knight. I found it bizarre that those wonderful singers were talking *over* their own performances instead of before and after them.
As the movie progressed, I began flinching every time the voice overs returned. At one point I said, “Let Mavis and Mahalia sing.”
The main reason I thought Summer Of Soul would focus on the music is its director: Questlove who is a musician. But it’s his directorial debut and, oddly enough, he seemed not to have confidence in the power of the music to carry the movie.
There’s nothing wrong with the political content: I agreed with almost all of it, but much of it seemed to be a primer on Black pride/power politics for millennials. Questlove crams too much information into an hour and fifty-seven minutes. A different and longer format would have allowed both the talking heads and the performances more room.
Before writing this, I read an interview with Questlove. Here’s the money quote:
“Quincy Jones taught me early,” the affable, chatty Questlove said. “I interviewed him for my podcast, and when he’s talking about the process of (making Michael Jackson’s) ‘Thriller,’ and the fact that they had to go through 281 songs before they decided, these are our final nine. And he’s like, the common denominator was you got goosebumps. There’s a moment in the song that really touches your soul.”
Quincy Jones has had a remarkable career. He’s the bridge between the Basie/Sinatra/King Cole generation of American popular music and the MTV generation. He produced everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Donna Summer. He knows from goosebumps.
I wish there had been more musical goosebumps in Summer Of Soul, but I still liked it. It’s full of good intentions and great music but it needed more uninterrupted great music.
I’m proud of myself for writing this review without a single drummer joke. I reserve those for my buddy, Kyle Melancon but I’m sure Questlove has heard them all. 🥁🥁🥁
One thing that puzzled me was calling it a Questlove Jawn. I consulted with Mr. Google who led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines jawn as “Philly slang for a person, place, or thing.”
Mystery solved. Ahmir Khalib Thompson DBA Questlove is from Philadelphia. It’s his variation on the Spike Lee Joint theme.
Summer Of Soul is playing in theatres and streaming on Hulu. I give it 3 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B. I eagerly await the director’s cut: I want to see more of David Ruffin’s fur-collared jacket. Talk about hot fun in the summertime.