Reel Dad: 'Summer of Soul' relives 1969 at Sundance Film Festival

They say history repeats itself, especially if we don't learn the first time. Movies help us remember the lessons by taking us back to moments we may forget or not be old enough to have experienced.

In some ways, the summer of 1969 felt a bit like the year we have just been through. The nation was ravaged by war, politicians promised to strengthen law and order, tension filled streets and voices silenced for too long found new ways to be heard. That summer, a man stepped onto the moon, the Manson murders and Chappaquiddick made headlines and a music festival called Woodstock was the talk of the nation.

As the heat index soared in New York City, thousands of people in Harlem gathered in Mount Norris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) each Sunday evening for concerts packaged by promoter Tony Lawrence. Each week, a new roster of musicians would perform; as the performances continued through the summer, the content began to tell a story of people finding new ways to express what they wanted the world to be, how they hoped to live and, most important, how they expected to be treated. The “Harlem Cultural Festival” as the concerts were named captured a milestone in a journey that, tragically, continues today.

With a list of performers any promoter would envy - including Stevie Wonder, the Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone - Lawrence hoped a film record of the concerts would find its way to television. When that didn’t happen, the footage went into storage where, nearly 50 years later, it was discovered and restored by Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson who brings the event to magical life in the soaring documentary, “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”The film brilliantly takes us back to the realities of the times while illuminating lessons we still need to learn.

Had Thompson simply assembled a film of the concerts, we would be captivated by the legendary performers. But this first-time filmmaker does much more. He uses the music as a frame for an emotional journey through a landscape filled with people defined by recent assassinations, artificial promises of progress and a compelling need to stand up and be counted. Musically, the performances recreate the sounds we associate with the period while letting us see how much has and has not changed with time. Adding to the meaning is watching such legends as Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. watch their performances for the first time.

As entertaining as the music filling the park can be, the film grips us in the quiet segments that soar, when Nina Simone challenges the crowd to take action, the Edwin Young Singers captivate with “Oh, Happy Day”, Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson in “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and a young Stevie Wonder performs with such youthful abandon that we believe anything in the world can be possible.

Summary: Summer of Soul

Content: High. As the film reaches into the musical soul of a nation, it celebrates how a movie camera can preserve a moment forever.

Entertainment: High. With a rare collection of musical performances, the film takes us back to a time when people with essential things to say found new ways to be heard.

Message: High. Anyone who savors the music of soul, and the lessons of history, will be captivated by this film.

Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to share such an essential time with your family is welcome.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. You and your film can enjoy this film for its entertainment as well as an opportunity to consider what we should have learned in the past 52 years.

How lucky we are to revisit a most important time. This breathtaking film is a treat for anyone who believes history can teach when we immerse ourselves in its pivotal moments. Perhaps, all these years later, we are more prepared to learn.

“Summer of Soul” is not yet rated and runs 1 hour and 57 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to .