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Summer of Soul review – joyous, sun-soaked doc revives a near-mythic festival

Questlove's tribute to the Harlem Culture Festival is bursting with amazing footage of gigs that should have gone down in history

There might be no year better suited to being covered in a documentary than 1969. From the Moon to the Mansons, via Woodstock, Vietnam, Civil Rights, and all-new forms of artistic expression, especially in music and film, it’s a year that is fully baked into our culture, and yet there is still new material to find and fascinate. In the case of Questlove’s shimmering Summer of Soul, this material is the largely forgotten Harlem Culture Festival, brought to toe-tapping life thanks to a wealth of brilliant archive footage cut together with style and urgency.

The Harlem Culture Festival was a meeting of the best and brightest in Black music, art, and intellectualism, attended by hundreds of thousands of people but set to one side in the history books, overshadowed by Woodstock and denied TV airtime by bosses who had no interest in a celebration of Black culture. Hours upon hours of footage were left just sitting there, and it’s this “rediscovered” footage that makes Summer of Soul so electrifying.

There are still talking heads to inform and contextualise, but the music is the star of the show, and rightly so. Captivating performances from Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, and many more iconic acts make this one of the rare documentaries that absolutely must be seen on the big screen.

On some occasions Summer of Soul’s balancing act between being a documentary and an out-and-out concert film is precarious, one element slightly getting in the way of the other, but this is still a joyous, sun-soaked party of a movie. As they did at the festival itself, here politics and music meld into one, expertly capturing the thrill of a true cultural turning point.

Summer of Soul is now showing in cinemas.

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