As music stars turn to movies as promotional tools, the Questlove project looks back to a golden age of filmed performances that the academy rarely acknowledges.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”