Music festivals have always been about more than just the music. Questlove’s beautifully curated documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival understands this perfectly. This amazing film lets us experience the music and the atmosphere, but also effortlessly contextualises everything, selling the historic import and delving into the wider topics while still delivering one hell of a party. And, while music festivals are more than just music, this film knows that the music is still the beating heart. The wider resonance all spreads from the central rhythm and this film keeps the performances at the centre. Even when we are watching archive footage, interviews or more, the music carries us through. These electric performances are a red hot catalyst at the centre of the film, matching their status at the festival itself.
Like the very best documentaries, this feels vital. The 1969 festival is shown in all of its glory but is shown, really, for the first time. Despite being filmed at the time, this footage was yet to surface; nobody was interested in showcasing footage of what became known (if it was spoken of at all) as ‘The Black Woodstock’ and this landmark event fell into obscurity. This, in itself, is a sign of the pernicious white supremacy at the heart of our (mainstream) historical narratives: the ability to curate history so that certain things rise to the ranks of narrative while so much else is forgotten. History is a selected narrative and things that are not part of that narrative fall out of a shared reality. The ‘forgetting’ of this event is very purposeful. The showcasing of it now is also very purposeful, and it is wonderful.
At its heart, this festival is a celebration. It is primarily a celebration of Black culture, but it is secondarily a freedom cry against white supremacy and the attempt to create a white monoculture. This event happened in parallel to the moon landing and Woodstock 1969, two events that colour our wider perception of the period. This even exists in opposition to them. If Woodstock is about ‘peace and love’, this is a showcase of an emptiness to that sentiment, but also of genuine love. This show is all about togetherness and community, but it is a togetherness born of oppression. Every inch of the festival is openly political, with Black Panthers even functioning as security, but every moment is also joyous.
To speak more about the festival would be to do the documentary a disservice, as it so perfectly tells the story. The filmmaking is the secret star here. Performances are sequenced in a way that builds such momentum, making the most of the limited footage to bring such energy. We go from crowd, to performers, to crowd, to performers, to wider footage, to interviews from the present day. All of it fits together and even the wider contextualising, interviews and the like feel like harmonised melodies playing over a consistent beat. Musicality springs out of everything, the form of the film itself feeling like the festival it covers.
The music here is incredible. Everybody is at the top of their game, the tunes are tight, the music is exciting but it is also free. There are long form improvisations and general jamming out, it all feels so proficient yet so organic. The way the documentary moves is the same. Something will happen in a performance, or a person will make an off-hand comment, and suddenly we will get a deep dive into that area. It never feels overly didactic; it never feels dry. Stories spring organically out of the moments, with modern footage and wider footage from the time (all very well chosen) perfectly contextualising every part. It always lets you know what you need to know, without ever overwhelming what is at the core of the experience. The festival was about all of these things but was told through music, the documentary starts with music and lets it lead us to all of these things.