Sunday, December 19, 2021

'Summer of Soul,' my pick for best documentary of 2021

For today's Sunday entertainment feature, I'm returning to the closing paragraph of 'Hamilton,' 'Inside,' and 'American Utopia' all winners at the 2021 Emmy Awards.
Good luck to Burnham on his two Grammy nominations for Best Song Written for Visual Media, which went to "All Eyes on Me" instead of "Comedy" — remember, electorates matter — and Best Music Film for "Inside." I don't think he'll win either, as he's contending with Emmy winner "Agatha All Along," Oscar nominee "Stand Up," and Oscar winner "Fight for You" in the first category and "American Utopia" and especially "Summer of Soul," which won six Critics Choice Documentary Awards and is my choice to win Documentary Feature at next year's Oscars [in the second category]. That's extremely tough competition.
The other nominees for Best Music Film at the Grammys are "Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles" featuring Billie Eilish (I'm surprised "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry" with four Emmy nominations wasn't nominated instead, but "Happier Than Ever" is eligible for next year's Emmy Awards and may be a better film) and "Music, Money, Madness...Jimi Hendrix In Maui." I still think "Summer of Soul" is the favorite.

Before I continue discussing the documentary, I'm sharing SUMMER OF SOUL | Official Trailer from Searchlight Pictures, which is now Disney's prestige film division since it acquired it from Fox.

In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary—part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.
That really makes me want to watch the film. I'll show it to my wife, who loves Motown, to see if it makes her want to watch it with me. Yes, I'm praising a film based on its reputation, but I think it deserves its reputation. In addition to earning six Critics Choice Documentary Awards, Best Documentary Feature, Best First Documentary Feature, Best Editing for Joshua L. Pearson, Best Archival Documentary, Best Music Documentary, and Best Director for Questlove, and the Grammy nomination for Best Music Film, "Summer of Soul" has earned a special award from the American Film Institute, two nominations at the Black Reel Awards, six nominations from the Cinema Eye Honors Awards, two nominations at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, a nomination at the Gotham Independent Film Awards (it lost to "Flee," which tags it as strong competition), four nominations from the International Documentary Association, one nomination each from the PGA Awards and Satellite Awards, and won Best Documentary from the National Board of Review. Wow!

About the only thing that would stop "Summer of Soul" from winning Documentary Feature at the Oscars is if it's not nominated for the reasons I listed in 'Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution' at the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards (corrected for grammar).
[T]he Documentary Branch of the Motion Picture Academy...deliberately do[es] not nominate documentaries that will earn votes from the entire academy as a whole that they don't agree [are] the very best. They also don't like documentaries made with archive footage. They also have political axes to grind.
The only prejudice that definitely applies is the second against archival documentaries, but I think it won't be enough to prevent its nomination, as it's very high quality, even if Questlove wasn't an established documentarian until now, and the film's politics work in its favor. Follow over the jump for two interviews of Questlove in which he discusses the film's political and social implications.

First, Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ tells long-forgotten story of Harlem Cultural Festival | Nightline from ABC News.

Some of the world’s greatest Black musicians performed at the concert series, which occurred at the same time as Woodstock in the wake of MLK’s death. The documentary is now streaming on Hulu.
While that's a good hard-news interview that explores how and why Questlove made the documentary, it's also a bit of stealth promotion, as Searchlight and ABC are both subsidiaries of Disney. To recycle what I wrote about CNN defending Big Bird, "It's not just news value that's driving it." By the way, ABC is broadcasting next year's Oscar ceremony. That shouldn't affect the nominees and winners, but keep it in mind just the same.

Variety explored another aspect of creating the documentary in Why Questlove and the 'Summer of Soul' Team Changed the Doc's Title From 'Black Woodstock'.

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's film centers on the Harlem Cultural Festival and features rare, unseen footage featuring Stevie Wonder [who performs an epic drum solo to kick off the film], Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, B.B. King and more from the six-week concert series at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in 1969.

In the narrative, the concert and the acts who played it mirrored the cultural revolution that was taking place in the Black community after the devastating events of 1968, which included the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Plus, the festival happened weeks before Woodstock, which was known for launching the legends of music acts like Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Sly and the Family Stone. Sly and the Family Stone also performed at the Harlem Cultural Fest, using the first as a "dress rehearsal" performance of sorts.

"Woodstock happens in two weeks after this and it defines a lifestyle, it defines a generation. Woodstock, the city name alone, just defines a whole movement. And I kept wondering what would have went down if this were allowed to happen for [Black people]," Thompson explained at the Variety Sundance Studio presented by AT&T TV. "If this were allowed to unfurl and and spread across the world as Woodstock did, how much of a difference could that have made in my life as a music lover and as a music collector? So, then I just felt this the sense of purpose that I have to tell the story."

Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin, who documented the six-week festival in 1969, had called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, the unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Tulchin died in 2017, but the film is dedicated to him. At one point, the new documentary was titled "Black Woodstock," but over time, the team had a chance of heart.

"I was definitely in my feelings at the time when we settled on 'Black Woodstock,'" Thompson said. "Because my thing was like, we as a people, we as creators have always had to deal with cultural appropriation, being swagger-jacked twenty-four seven. And, in my mind, I think this was like, 'Now it's our turn to do the same thing; let's take your precious Woodstock and put a stain on it.' But then I thought about that and I'm just like, we are not a stain."

"We just felt like it would do a disservice like this [story], this isn't an eye for eye, tooth for tooth moment, this is not about revenge," he continued. "This is just about revealing the truth and what it was. And so, for me, it was 'Summer of Soul.' But I did get a wink in there with that the subtitle 'Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised' -- that's what I wanted to get out there, so I feel it's more apropos."
I think Questlove made the right decision about the title. "Summer of Soul" should stand on its own instead of in the shadow of Woodstock.

This entry went on a little longer than I expected, as I'm grading final exams. Stay tuned for short entries until I submit all the grades. I might even post another episode of the Student Sustainability Video Festival. In the meantime, here's a graphic from Twitter celebrating "Summer of Soul" winning six Critics Choice Documentary Awards.

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