Sundance Diary, Half 2: The Promise of Music in a Highly effective Movie

Sundance Diary, Part 2: The Promise of Music in a Powerful Film

AO Scott, our critic in general, keeps a journal while attending the virtual Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Wednesday. Read part 1 here.

Friday, 1am: It’s been almost exactly a year since I took a plane, almost as long since I’ve been to a movie theater, and many months since I got up after midnight. The Sundance premier screenings are held in three-hour windows, which makes the start time flexible. I was able to wash some dishes before deciding to go sightseeing in the evening. And of course the pause button is available for snack or bathroom breaks.

Normally I would skip an event like “Opening Night Welcome”, but I checked into this short program of zoom-in greetings and video montages to mark the line between everyday life and festival. I also wanted to take a look at Tabitha Jackson, the festival director, when she added a new entry to her list of premieres. She is the first woman to lead Sundance and the first person of color and person to be born outside the United States in this role. And now she’s also the first to run an online festival.

Over the past few years, I might have found her brief remarks a little cheesy, evoking the strength of community and the power of storytelling. Instead, I was moved and touched by the greetings from festival goers waving from their living rooms in Austin, Denver, New York, and elsewhere. Human connection cannot be taken for granted these days.

Then I saw two films, one of which blew me away. I will concentrate on emphasizing the positive in the usual festival spirit. Directed by Ahmir Thompson, better known to music fans as Questlove, this is a documentary entitled “Summer of Soul” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

This event is sometimes referred to as “Black Woodstock”, but the parallel is a bit misleading and describing “Summer of Soul” as a concert film doesn’t do it justice. I mean, it captures some absolutely fascinating musical performances – from Stevie Wonder, the Staples Singers, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Ray Barretto, and Sly and the Family Stone, among others – but it anchors them in a vibrant and intricate tableau of politics, Culture and city life.

Thompson uses archival footage and recent interviews wisely to contextualize long-lost footage of the festival itself, which ran over several summer weekends, including the day the moon landed. He contends that what happened in Harlem was at least as significant and should be remembered as a turning point in black history (as well as the history of New York, America and musicals).

More than 50 years later, when enthusiastic summer crowds and live performances are out of reach, it is a reminder of what is possible and the power and promise of popular art in troubled times.