Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB
USA, 2021. Concordia Studio, LarryBilly Productions, Mass Distraction Media, Play/Action Pictures, RadicalMedia, Two One Five Entertainment, Vulcan Productions. Cinematography by Shawn Peters. Produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, Joseph Patel. Production Design by Lauren Nikrooz, Mark Thompson. Film Editing by Joshua L. Pearson.
Musician and author Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes a magnificent directorial debut with this exuberant documentary that unearths the memory of the Harlem Music Festival of 1969, often referred to as “Black Woodstock” and occurring barely over 100 miles away from that better known series of concerts. Every Sunday of that historic summer, Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) played host to top-rate music acts that the crowds rushed to see, there was no charge to attend and there was no lack of variety in the acts themselves: Gospel music, Caribbean and African performers, stand-up comedians (Moms Mabley), speeches from civil leaders like Jesse Jackson plus the star presence of Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson (only three years before her death), and B.B. King to name just a few.
Fifty years later, attendees of the festival sit down for Thompson’s camera to give generous interviews, at the time they were teenagers and are now having a wonderful, sometimes tearful time reminiscing about that marvelous summer, and a number of surviving performers (Knight, Wonder) or their children relate what they remember about being part of it on stage. The consensus of all is that the festival was the relief for Harlem’s predominantly black and brown community in a time of great stress: with a heroin epidemic tearing through the city, soldiers dying in Vietnam, a decade of assassinations of sympathetic politicians (the Kennedy brothers) and civil rights leaders (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr), plus the previous summer’s riots that practically laid waste to the neighbourhood, the festival seems to have been engineered to help ease the tension and, as the evidence on hand seems to suggest, the plan worked.
Unfortunately, the plan to do something with the footage was not as successful, the majority of these performances were left in a vault for decades (two television specials used some of the performances but for the most part the rest was ignored) until Thompson decided to assemble them into this exciting film, revealing that the cameras captured not just the images of the festival that summer, but the energy emanating off the stage. Why these magnificent performances didn’t take high priority isn’t too difficult to figure out, almost prefigured by the 1969 footage that shows attendees of the festival announcing that they prefer to be at the park rather than at home watching the moon landing, something many consider to be a waste of money that could be better put towards more pressing social concerns.
The collage of musical performances, news footage that gives context of the culture of the time and the testimonies of those who appear on camera operate in a rhythm of call and response, for every reminder of pain and injustice there is the sound of triumphant music that lifts the audience out of their despair, and for every image of glorious, beautiful talent being celebrated on screen there is the reminder of change that has yet to come. What we have here is something that pleases the eye and ear but also touches the spirit.
Academy Award: Best Documentary Feature