In the mid-2010s, films about popular music dominated the best documentary feature category at the Academy Awards. “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and “Amy” all won the prize. It was an unexpected boom: in the decades prior, nonclassical music documentaries had received only scattered nominations.
All of those winning films were biographies or chronicles of a scene or community. This year, though, a nominated documentary is built around footage of musical performance: “Summer of Soul,” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that featured Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and Stevie Wonder, among others.
“This film is a departure from the way the Oscars have looked at music documentaries,” said Thom Powers, documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and host of the Pure Nonfiction podcast. “They have been drawn to music-based films, but the cores of those films are not performances, they’re other kinds of storytelling.”
Ironically, the only concert documentary to win an Academy Award was “Woodstock” in 1971, a film that cast a strong shadow on “Summer of Soul.” The events in each film took place during the same season, but while the movie capturing “Three Days of Peace and Music” on Max Yasgur’s farm became a touchstone for a generation, the footage from Harlem languished.
Of course, “Summer of Soul” isn’t only a concert film; its director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, best known for his day job as the drummer for the Roots, has rejected this description of the project, and the movie touches on multiple topics involving the politics of the time. But with its focus on the stage, “Summer of Soul” directly connects to and reclaims the tradition of the quality concert documentary, a form that has seen its reputation rise and fall over the rock era.
In the 1960s, concert documentaries were respected projects. “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” which captured performances at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival from Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry, is preserved in the National Film Registry, while Murray Lerner’s “Festival,” shot at the 1963-66 Newport Folk Festivals, was an Oscar nominee in 1968. Documentary pioneers like the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker were involved in multiple music movies that helped define the era.
“Those filmmakers were more driven by documentary film principles than they were by music,” said Benjamin J. Harbert, the author of “American Music Documentary” and an associate professor of music at Georgetown University. “They were all older than the generation they were shooting. They were kind of like anthropologists, trying to pull us into this world of changing ’60s America.”
Mia Mask, a professor of film at Vassar College, noted similarities between “Summer of Soul” and films like “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles’ chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ chaotic, disastrous appearance at the 1969 Altamont festival, or “Don’t Look Back,” Pennebaker’s document of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour. “Like ‘Gimme Shelter,’ there isn’t a strong linear narrative, but the musical culture undergirds a whole host of other things,” she said. “And ‘Don’t Look Back’ is more episodic, it captures moments along that concert trail.” In those respects, she noted, “‘Summer of Soul’ harks back to those seminal documentaries.”
In a telephone interview, Thompson explained that his initial conception was something closer to a conventional concert documentary. “I was like, ‘I got 40 hours’ worth of footage and this has to be 90 minutes,’” he said. “I automatically know, after 25 years of doing shows, that if we got 90 minutes, that’s 14 songs. And there’s way more artists than there is space for songs, so now I’m thinking in terms of a cool mix tape.
“I’m not saying I would have gone cut-and-paste traditional documentary,” he continued, “but I would have probably told the story of a Harlem festival, then expanded it to Spanish Harlem and other cultures, and then opened it to the worldwide setting, the African artists that were there, and that would have more or less been the story.”
But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Thompson and his team had to recalibrate. Several interviews with artists who appeared at the festival were scrapped and a new direction was required. “It stopped being just the concert footage once we got to the pandemic and our Jenga fell down,” he said. “We had to start from the top and be creative.”
After Woodstock a wave of rock concert films inevitably followed, from Pink Floyd (at Pompeii!), David Bowie and the Grateful Dead, with the emerging phenomenon of midnight movies at local art houses offering a consistent outlet.
This trend covered Black performers as well, with the release of documentaries like “Wattstax” and “Soul to Soul,” and others that were shot but didn’t come out until many years later, like “Soul Power” (from the music festival attached to the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight featured in the Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings”) and the Aretha Franklin gospel performance “Amazing Grace.”
This era culminated in extremes: On the one hand, there were the comic excesses of Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” (1976), with preposterous fantasy sequences and cuts taken from different shows, such that the band’s outfits sometimes change within a single song. On the other, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978) captured the final performance by the original lineup of The Band, with a cavalcade of guests representing all of the group’s influences and history. “The Last Waltz” is often described as the finest example of the form, but Dr. Harbert also noted that some have called it “the death of the concert film, with all the pans of rock celebrities and inside jokes and every shot so methodically planned out.”
A few years later, MTV dramatically and permanently shifted the relationship between the audience and music on film. With the addition of series like “MTV Unplugged,” it became much more common to watch music performance; the concert film was no longer restricted to the pop elite. To stand out, it took something exceptional, like 1984’s “Stop Making Sense” — balancing the Talking Heads’ innovative staging and the radical simplicity of Jonathan Demme’s direction — or the incomparable virtuosity on display in Prince’s 1987 “Sign o’ the Times.”
Dr. Mask said that over time documentaries have “moved away from cinéma vérité-style towards more narrative with more commercial appeal. We see a real shift with something like Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare’ and those ’80s and early ’90s films that wanted to turn the concert film on its head and make it something else entirely. Now Beyoncé is doing her own version of that with projects like ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Homecoming.’”
Musicians have made concert films to chronicle special events (LCD Soundsystem’s 2012 “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” shot at the group’s “farewell” concert — a farewell that lasted until its 2015 reunion) or experiment with technique (the Beastie Boys’ 2006 “Awesome,” entirely made up of footage taken by members of the crowd). More recently, with streaming services’ perpetual need for content, films of pop stars like Shawn Mendes and Ariana Grande in concert have become promotional staples.
Beyond its incorporation of local and global events in 1969, what’s different about “Summer of Soul” was Thompson’s approach to editing, which was based in his background as a musician and especially as a D.J. “When I was stuck, my producer and editor would say, ‘If this was a D.J. gig, what would you do next?’” Thompson explained, adding, “If this movie were my favorite Public Enemy album or a D.J. set I was doing, how would I cut and scratch and go to the next thing?”
Powers agreed that this construction is ultimately what distinguishes the film from a traditional concert documentary: “He’s doing this tremendous job of mixing commentary and music. You’re getting the concert, but you’re also getting this layer of music history so expertly woven into the discussion.”
“Summer of Soul” arrives at a contemporary moment of profound questions surrounding race and politics, and the story it tells of the culture and context surrounding the Harlem Cultural Festival is necessary. But it’s also important — as with any great concert film — for the magnificent performances at the heart of the project to be recognized on their own terms.
“It benefits from a heightened political awareness, but it also enables you to see these talented folks on display, being appreciated by a Black audience,” Dr. Mask said, adding, “We’re accustomed to turning on the news and hearing about Black pain. ‘Summer of Soul’ gives audiences an opportunity to celebrate Black joy.”