Top Ten Movies of 2021 — Number Two

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson could have made a straightforward concert film with the footage he was given, and the finished product could have still been one of the highlights of the cinematic year. With hours upon hours of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, staged across six summer weekend, most of it unseen for more than fifty years, Thompson’s simplest course was stitching it together into a jubilant showcase for a string of artists who have largely crossed into legend status in the intervening decades, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone among them. Instead, Thompson considered what it meant that this trove of wondrous performances went unseen and unloved for so long, especially when the Woodstock Music and Art Fair from the same year has been sanctified despite being less impressive in scale, scope, range, and arguably even quality. With that gap in the cultural record clearly at the forefront of Thompson’s thinking, he made a documentary that celebrates the bygone festival and the major figures who lit it up, and he simultaneously reckons honestly with the endemic societal erasure of Black accomplishment that makes the reappearance of the long-discard video of the event so revelatory. Summer of Soul hits on a dizzying number of topics and yet is never overwhelmed by the flurry of ideas. Thompson keeps the different tracks spinning, like a line of DJ turntables that he wields expertly. The film has unerring rhythm as it electric slides back and forth between dazzlers on stage, archival footage that illuminates the Black experience at the time, and remembrances of those who were there. It’s truly astonishing that Summer of Soul is Thompson’s very first feature as a director. He has the command of born filmmaker. This is a vital document, not only of a concert series, but of a people and time that deserve veneration and preservation.

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