PG-13, but I think that's only because the movie is intentionally and gloriously political. There are things that people are going to find wildly offensive and / or dangerous. Despite being a concert film, it is a movie about the right to be Black in America. That involves questioning moments of racial violence on either side. It allows itself to get uncomfortable, which it absolutely should. PG-13.
Disney + had this for streaming! Do you understand how much respect Disney + has gotten from me? The answer is: a lot. A lot of respect for Disney +. Now, part of that comes from the fact that it was bound to be nominated for an Academy Award. It's smart on their part posting that. But it is controversial as heck. Here's the deal: I love me some really good concert movies. It makes about zero sense that I like concert movies as much as I do, considering that I'm not that into music. But a really well cut together music documentary like Woodstock or Gimme Shelter can absolutely crush. When I worked at the video store, between putting on Superman Returns, I would throw on Monterey Pop because it was just too good of a time. (I just realized how long it has been since I worked at the video store and I feel remarkably old right now.)
But there's something gorgeous about a good concert film. (Note: Dave Chappelle's Block Party is worth a rewatch pretty soon.) But something like the documentaries that I mentioned give us a glimpse into a reality that may not have happened had not someone documented it. (I think I just defined "documentary", but I'll explain.) There's something very of-the-moment when it comes to a rock concert. There are X number of rock concerts every week and a small percentage of people see those concerts. Often, these concerts are for the superfans. After all, concerts are expensive and they are simply a reproduction of a series of songs that have pretty much been memorized by the crowd. The experience is almost one of complete appreciation. It is a love of art for art's sake. It's probably why I haven't been to that many concerts. Because my artistic soul is satisfied with the glory of the consumption of the song itself, I rarely have the need to appreciate the technical craft of playing it live. I mean, I like live music. I don't deny that there's something special about seeing something live. But concerts rarely can make the transition to something more permanent like a feature length film.
I love that Questlove made this. There's so much going on with Summer of Soul (sorry that I don't write the full title because that will get tiresome after a while). It is a concert film done by a guy who knows and loves music. If you took everything out of the film, cutting out the interviews and the historical footage, the movie works as a concert film. I mean, there wouldn't be that absolutely amazing context for the importance of the Harlem Cultural Festival. But as a concert film, you could have it on in the background and absolutely jam to this movie. It's so good. It's an appreciation for the art in itself. But Questlove, like any great director, refuses to simply let the film speak for itself. Instead, he imbues this movie with importance. Rather than simply the role of the Black community as entertainment for the White man, he establishes the importance of Black voices and the range of voices that they take.
Honestly, this is a better Civil Rights Movement movie than it is a music movie. Oh, and it's a great music movie. Every performer on stage is a lesson in both music history and Civil Rights history. The festival that we watch in Summer of Soul took place at the exact same year as Woodstock. It was for the Black community and it offered a lineup that dropped jaws. Yet, the fact that no one knows about it is a crime. There's proof that there's a crime because this footage has been sitting in storage since 1969. This is a gorgeously shot, completely marketable documentary and no one wanted to distribute it because it was too Black. From a Capitalism perspective, there's the notion that people aren't going to distribute something that they can't sell. But it's not like this was a small performance for an intimate audience. The Harlem Cultural Festival was packed to the gills. While it may not have had Woodstock numbers, this wasn't a joke. There were police monitoring and providing security. People wanted to swarm the stage at times. You could see a ripple effect in the crowd, it was so dense. That's an audience. That's one borough in one city in a country. If this was released, Black America might have swarmed to this film and it sat in a basement.
But the film is an education. I almost want to use this to teach my Civil Rights unit coupled with John Lewis's March. The documentary is long. I can't deny that it almost might be a bit too long. But something about this format almost wants me to say for Questlove to make it longer. I've been trying to continually educate myself about Civil Rights in America. It's a full-time job that a lot of people around me don't appreciate. So I knew a lot of the touchstones that Questlove was addressing. But if I didn't, it might have come across a little rushed. I say that because I use my own younger self as a litmus test. I always hate the me of a decade ago. Maybe I hate the me of a decade ago now less than he hated his counterpart, but that's up for debate. A decade ago, I could see this movie rubbing me the wrong way. I mean, I'm glad Questlove was going for that because that's good storytelling and good evangelization, but I also know that pissing off your audience might make it hard to get your message across. There are moments where Questlove was honest about the role of violence in the Civil Rights movement. It talked about the Black Panther. When Nina Simone read that poem, it was a call to violence. I understood it and contextualized. The pacifist part of me grew uncomfortable, but I respected it. But that's part of the reality for Black America.
I was going to say, "Especially in the '60s", but life ain't so good right now either.
There is one section that I need to grow with. 1969 was the year of the moon landing. It happened while the Harlem Cultural Festival was going on. I always viewed the moon landing as the moment from Star Trek where we made first contact with the Vulcans. When Zephram Cochrane broke the warp barrier, we united as a human collective and became something better than ourselves. History has always viewed the moon landing as one of those moments that began healing America. But from a Black perspective, especially a poor Black perspective, it was more White people dealing with White problems, all surrounded by feeling good about ourselves. The intellectual part of me wants to defend the race to the moon. As a people, we need to keep pushing forward. Jumping to "whataboutism", stating that the money could be used to feed the hungry makes me want to raise all kinds of arguments about the Either / Or Fallacy. But the emotional and moral elements of me completely sympathize. It has to suck to worry about keeping a roof over your head when we're spending oh-so-many dollars to get to the moon. Should we have stopped the moon landing? Probably not. But should we have prevented Black America from becoming institutionally poor so it wouldn't be a problem? Absolutely.
Questlove made a documentary that didn't only make you feel good, but forced you to think and question your beliefs. Yeah, it's a little bit long and some parts drag. But it is a fantastic concert film because of how much attention went into presenting this info.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.