Following "Summer of Soul" on Hulu, Here are 10 Soulful Summer Festivals Worth a Doc

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Following "Summer of Soul" on Hulu, Here are 10 Soulful Summer Festivals Worth a Doc

"Summer of Soul," the powerful debut documentary from Amir "Questlove" Thompson that debuted in theaters and on Hulu earlier this month, brings to light the many pleasures of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a musical extravaganza with Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King and Sly and the Family Stone that is deftly given social and political context.

It likely got the "Black Woodstock" moniker from Hal Tulchin, the guy who painstakingly shot the original event for a possible TV sale, setting up the stage at the present-day Marcus Garvey Park to face the sun to save on lights. Tulchin scrawled "Black Woodstock" on the tapes to give them the caché of the upstate rock fest drawing all the headlines. It didn't work and the tapes were shelved for decades -- until this year.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was fundamentally a different event than Woodstock, though it shared at least one performer, Sly and the Family Stone. Not a three-day weekend camping fest, it was a six-week series of Sunday afternoon concerts, with a local audience that in many cases had popped over from church.

It was also not the first, and certainly not the last music festival to concentrate on the rich artistry of the Black community while bringing in the diverse sounds as well of other underrepresented communities from Puerto Rico to Africa.

Here are 10 other festivals that warranted their own exuberant documentaries. Some were documented, others were not, as noted below).

Schaefer Music Festival -- Two years before the Harlem Cultural Festival, the beer-sponsored concert series at Wollman Rink in Central Park was presenting a slew of diverse talent for free (or a dollar). Jimi Hendrix played a bill with the Young Rascals the first year. By 1969, performers also included Harlem acts Simone, King, Sly Stone, Ray Barretto and Hugh Masekela, but also Miles Davis, Sam & Dave, John Lee Hooker, Lou Rawls, Little Richard, Slim Harpo, Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria and Little Richard.

There was a documentary of sorts. A couple of nights in 1971 were filmed for an ABC special that aired in August that year featuring the television debut of Carly Simon alongside Ike & Tina Turner, Boz Scaggs and The Beach Boys.

Miami Pop Festival -- The first big international pop festival on the East Coast in December 1968 was largely rock acts, but its three days also included Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, Jose Feliciano, Hugh Masekela, Junior Walker, Joe Tex, Richie Havens and James Cotton.

There is no documentary.

Wattstax -- Stax Records organized this huge festival at the L.A. Coliseum in 1972 to mark the seventh anniversary of the 1965 uprising in Watts. The one-day event attracted 112,000 people, the largest gathering of African Americans outside of a civil rights event to date. Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, The Staples Singers Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Carla Thomas and the Bar-Kays were among the performers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson hosted.

There is a documentary. Released in 1973, "Wattstax" was nominated for a best documentary Golden Globe and in 2020 was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Zaire '74 -- South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela conceived of the three-day music fest in the present day Democratic Republic of Congo to coincide with the celebrated Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight that fall dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle." The fight was postponed but the concert went on in September 1974, with James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and Mariam Makeba performing as well as 17 groups from Zaire.

There is a (long-delayed) documentary. Thirty-five years after this event, director Jeff Levy-Hinte released his film about the concert, "Soul Power," in 2009.

World's Greatest Funk Festival -- The Detroit concert at the Pontiac Silverdome in July 1979 advertised "8 hours of Pure Funk" for $12.75. Its George Clinton-heavy roster included Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, Rick James, ConFunkShun, the Gap Band and the Clinton side projects Brides of Funkenstein and Parlet.

There is no documentary.

Astrodome Jazz Festival -- The initial event in 1972 in Houston's vast, domed stadium included Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Jimmy Smith, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet. Its second year had Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. Eventually it was rebranded the Kool Jazz Festival and played again in 1975, 1976 and 1980.

There is no documentary, but a bootleg recording of Hathaway's first-year performance has been trading hands for hundreds of dollars.

Summer Jam -- What might have been the first major hip-hop fest was thrown by New York radio station Hot 97 at the Meadowlands in 1994 featuring Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and Nas shortly after the release of their most iconic albums. Also on the bill: Arrested Development, Gang Starr and Black Moon. It has continued every year since. This year's event on Aug. 22 at Met Life Stadium is scheduled to include Saweetie, Swiss Beatz, Meek Mill, Migos, Young Devyn and Mooski.

No documentaries have been made.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party -- The celebratory September 2004 street concert in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood drew Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Common, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Dead Prez and a reunited Fugees.

There is documentation. The event was arguably organized for the film of the same name, directed by Michael Gondry and released in March 2006 featuring Chappelle doing comedy in between acts, riffing on the similarities of musicians and comedians.

Essence Music Festival -- First organized to mark the 25th anniversary of Essence Magazine in 1995, the festival itself celebrated its 25th anniversary with its 2019 event featuring Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, H.E.R., Big Freedia and more than 75 other acts at the Superdome in New Orleans. Billed as the largest African American culture and music event in the U.S., its first gathering featured Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle and B.B. King. Live events in 2020 and 2021 were curtailed because of the pandemic, but virtual performances this year came from DJ Khaled, Kirk Franklin, Carl Thomas, D-Nice, Tank and Jazmine Sullivan among others.

There is a documentary. Early in her career, Ava DuVernay directed a two-hour documentary on the event for TVOne that debuted in 2010.

Made in America Festival -- Rapper Jay-Z founded and performed in the initial festival in Philadelphia in 2012 with a lineup that included Pearl Jam, Drake, Jill Scott, Run-DMC, Mariah Carey, Janelle Monáe and Rita Ora. It has continued there annually each Labor Day Weekend, and this year's event (Sept. 4-5) is topped by Justin Bieber, Lil Baby, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion and Roddy Rich.

There is a documentary. Ron Howard directed the 2013 "Made in America," produced by Brian Grazer and Jay-Z chronicling the organization of the initial fest.

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