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Various Artists - Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Music Album Reviews

Various Artists - Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Music Album Reviews
The soundtrack to Questlove’s excellent documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival tells a nuanced story of Black creativity and perseverance at the end of a transformative decade.

Playing Harlem for the first time was a major step for the 5th Dimension. The St. Louis vocal group had scored a string of hits throughout the late 1960s, but they practically owned 1969 with “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” a medley of two songs from the musical Hair. It wasn’t just one of the biggest hits of the year, but a song that continues to define the era when counterculture ideas were infiltrating the mainstream. However, “we were constantly being attacked because we weren’t quote-unquote Black enough,” says singer Marilyn McCoo in an emotional moment of last year’s documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). “Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn’t like that. We happened to be artists who were Black and our voices sounded the way they sound.” The Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 gave the 5th Dimension an opportunity to perform for a predominantly Black audience.

And they absolutely killed it. Summer of Soul shows a group that never stops moving, filling the stage with a buzzy energy to match their orange-sherbet outfits. They dance from one microphone to another with synchronized steps, singing harder, louder, rawer than they did on the studio recording. It sounds like they’re trying to fill all of New York with joyful harmonies and hippie optimism, as well as a focused urgency to put those ideals of love, happiness, and community to work. The documentary suggests they’re able to sing the medley very differently in Harlem than they did at other venues. About McCoo’s emotional response to viewing that footage, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told Pitchfork: “I was wondering, why is this particular show hitting your heartstrings with the millions of things that you’ve done? And suddenly, I realized that she and I had something in common. No matter what job they have, every Black person in their workspace has to juggle code-switching. Between Motown and certain acts that wanted not to make it but survive, you had to code-switch.”

As a director, Questlove uses the performances at the Harlem Cultural Festival to explore issues like code-switching and to highlight the unique challenges Black artists faced as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. That focus lends Summer of Soul an unexpected emotional power, making it the finest music documentary in a year crammed to bursting with fine music documentaries. Now, it has a fine soundtrack featuring 16 songs on CD and 17 on streaming services. The sequencing is identical to the film, grouping gospel songs in the middle and jazz toward the end. There are some artists missing from the tracklist—most notably, Stevie Wonder, who opens the film—but it’s remarkable how well the music tells a nuanced story of Black creativity and perseverance at the end of the 1960s.

Assembling the documentary and the soundtrack, Questlove had a lot of remarkable material to work with: hours and hours of performances by gospel groups like Clara Walker & the Gospel Redeemers, blues acts like B.B. King, jazz instrumentalists like Max Roach, rock-oriented bands like the Chambers Brothers, pop artists like the 5th Dimension, and R&B singers like David Ruffin. There’s also a lot of Latin jazz, with Puerto Rican and Cuban performers like Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria. Both the documentary and its new soundtrack argue for the sweeping diversity of Black creative expression in the ’60s, and both make the most of these very different stylistic approaches: If you want the sublime optimism of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” (featuring an incredible lead vocal from Shirley Miller), then you have to take the righteous outrage of Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues,” too.

Arriving at the end of a decade that saw great strides in civil rights as well as ugly resistance to that progress, the festival showed the many ways pop music might confront political and social realities. This is music filled with optimism and joy, but also anger and urgency. Most of these artists capture all of those emotions at once, in particular Simone. Questlove uses her set as the documentary’s climax, and it’s not hard to see why: She distills so many of the film’s ideas into her three songs, especially “To Be Young, Gifted & Black” and “Are You Ready.” The latter, which closes the film and the soundtrack, is a sharp recitation of a poem by the Last Poets’ David Nelson, with Simone almost needling the audience: “Are you ready? Are you really ready?” Her performance acknowledges the struggles that await them in the new decade, but also emphasizes the power of their shared heritage and community to overcome anything America might throw at them. “Are you ready to smash things and burn buildings?” she asks, barely a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

King’s death hangs over the proceedings, although he’s only mentioned a few times. The Rev. Jesse Jackson introduces “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as a memorial to the slain leader, and it becomes a showcase for Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. Their unrehearsed performance is one of the finest moments in the documentary, although the loss of visuals—the closeups of their faces, the ecstatic quality of Staples’ jumps—robs the soundtrack version of just a bit of its power. It’s a passing of a torch that Staples would carry into the 1970s, but it’s also a glorious impromptu church service, each singer pushing the other to new heights and taking the audience along with them.

The summer of ’69 has become a focal point of white Boomer nostalgia, to the extent that events that don’t quite fit that narrative have been misrepresented or ignored altogether. Woodstock in particular becomes a touchstone for the Harlem Cultural Festival, and Questlove even invokes that event in the film’s first title card. The only overlap between those two festival lineups was Sly and the Family Stone, who obliterated audiences in Harlem just as they obliterated audiences at Yasgur’s farm. They get two songs on the soundtrack, both funky in a way that speaks to unspeakable joy yet acknowledges the misery of the late 1960s. The distortion and PA feedback add a bit of visceral aural violence to “Everyday People.”

Some of this footage aired on TV in 1969, but most of the tapes were stowed in producer Hal Tulchin’s basement, unseen and largely forgotten. It was never truly “lost,” but it might as well have been, considering how thoroughly other aspects of the era have been packaged and repackaged. But the music speaks as loudly and as powerfully now as it did then. It’s alarming how many of the issues cited by artists and presenters persist today—police violence, systemic racism, poverty, cultural erasure—yet that makes the music sound fresh, lively, relevant in its celebration and commiseration. Both the film and the soundtrack bear that weight of history gracefully and jubilantly.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Various Artists - Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Music Album Reviews Various Artists - Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, February 08, 2022 Rating: 5

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