In the Summer of 1969, while Woodstock was taking place upstate, an equally important music event was taking place in New York City. The Harlem Cultural Festival featured an impressive roster of many of the biggest Black performers of the time and was professionally recorded with the intention of airing the whole thing on TV. That would never come to pass however, and the footage languished away, unseen for decades in somebody’s basement. Questlove of The Roots found out about the lost film and tracked it down, ensuring that the world would finally get to experience this incredible show.
This isn’t a typical concert documentary. Spliced into the footage are interviews with all manner of people involved with the festival, from the acts themselves, to backstage crew, and attendees, who all help to make us understand what it was like to have been there that Summer. It’s nearly impossible not to feel the emotion watching one of the acts involved tear up a little as they can finally watch footage they believed lost of an event they had long thought back on fondly. Additional sessions with cultural experts and historians further help to put the show into the context of the city and the country at the time, emphasizing just how important and revolutionary it really was.
And that’s not to downplay just how great the music is on its own. With performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The 5th Dimension, and The Staple Singers among others, there is a constant stream of incredible songs.
Amir “Questlove” Thompson has proven himself to be as adapt a documentarian as he is a musician. This is a smart, thoughtfully assembled film that manages to be both fun and moving. It’s a shame that this footage was kept hidden away for so long, but we can all be thankful that we get to see it now. ★★★★★
rated pg-13 for some disturbing images, smoking, and brief drug material.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor