Today, we will present you with two totally conflicting views of this hot new Questlove documentary spotlighting the 1969 concert event that has since been dubbed "The Black Woodstock."
This footage has been locked away for over fifty years ... and has just recently come to light.
I will acknowledge that the reviews I've seen thus far cannot heap enough praise on this film ... my views are CLEARLY in the minority here ... but I have always felt that it was part of my duty as the spokesperson for Forgotten Hits to call 'em as I see 'em ... and are ALWAYS spoken thru the heart of a TRUE music fan.
Search around online and you'll find dozens and dozens of reviews for this film that first officially opened last Friday Night. (July 2nd) Nearly all ... if not all ... offer positive reviews.
I have selected Harvey Kubernik's review to run counterpoint to my own ... and if you have seen the film and would like to weigh in on it, too, your opinions are more than welcome.
I should point out that I had absolutely NO idea what Harvey was going to write when I was writing my piece ... or even that he was going to send it to me. Likewise, he had no prior knowledge as to my own opinions. (He has just commanded such a strong presence here in FH lately that I felt running HIS review would be the most logical next step.)
So now, we invite you to take it all in for all that it is worth. The film is currently playing in theaters across the country and also running on Hulu (which is where I saw it last Friday Night.)
The Fifth Dimension in Summer of Soul ( … Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
By Harvey Kubernik
Summer of Soul ( … Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the well-received documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is now in theaters and available to stream on Hulu. Searchlight Pictures released the film on July 2nd.
The film will also stream internationally through the Star offering on Disney+ on a date to be confirmed.It premiered at rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered both the grand jury prize and audience award. It subsequently was sold for more than 12 million dollars, the largest fee ever paid for a documentary in the history of the festival.
In 1969, the entire series of concerts was filmed by director and producer Al Tulchin. 52 years later, we now get to see and dig aspects of this glorious event. 40 hours of unseen footage still sits in a vault.
The film chronicles the six week gathering which was held at Mount Morris Park, (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem. Performers included Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Nina Simone, B.B. King, former Temptations' member David Ruffin, Sly & the Family Stone, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Moms Mabley, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Baretto, and the Fifth Dimension, the vocal ensemble of Lamonte McLemore, Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, Billy Davis Jr., and Marilyn McCoo.
I can’t say enough about Summer of Soul ( … Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and the musical talent displayed on screen. You have to wonder what if this film had a general theatrical release or any sort of distribution in the early seventies and how it would have propelled the careers or generated wider FM radio airplay for Nina Simone, Moms Mabley, Herbie Mann, Ray Baretto, and the Fifth Dimension.
I’ve featured the Fifth Dimension in a few of my books and constantly touted their delightful recorded catalog. I’m glad the group is spotlighted in this documentary of melodic diversity. McCoo and Davis, other stage participants along with the 1969 concert goers are passionate, revealing interview subjects in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s sociopolitical celluloid expedition.
Has there ever been a vocal group hailing from Southern California that earned commercial success with their immaculate Bones Howe-produced recordings and their live act that has been overlooked and misunderstood the last half century by pop culture pundits?
The Fifth Dimension at The Hollywood Bowl (photo by Henry Diltz)
photo by Helie Robertson
I’ve gotta tell you … I REALLY wanted to love the new documentary “Summer Of Soul” … everything about it sounded right … here was this INCREDIBLE line-up of stars participating in what has been described as the equivalent of a “Black Woodstock” … it even happened right around the same time in 1969 … and yet for all this time, nobody had ever seen or heard of it before! How can that even be?!?! (“When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised” indeed!!!)
It is BEAUTIFULLY filmed … full of bright colors and high quality sound and I SO much looked forward to seeing … and yet in the end I found it boring … and ultimately turned it off.
Forget the fact that at times it got so preachy … you knew that that was going to happen going in … but there is just SO much talent … INCREDIBLE talent … on display here and yet instead of showcasing the material you’d most like to hear from these artists … music that would draw in a FAR larger and more receptive audience … Questlove and the powers that be seem to have gone out of their way to showcase instead songs you would never even associate with these artists. I just felt that there was just SO much more potential available here that went untapped and unused.
For example … when the show kicked off with The Edwin Hawkins Singers singing “Oh, Happy Day,” it was a jubilant celebration of music … and I have to admit that it was REALLY fun to watch Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. watch THEMSELVES performing “Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In” in all their ‘60’s splendor and glory, some fifty years later. (Truth be told, I could not BELIEVE how good the group sounded live!)
But for every bright moment like this, there were three or four others that just seemed to be a waste of screen time, dragging on and burning up minutes that could have been put to better use showcasing other numbers.
Case in point … Stevie Wonder appears early in the film. Now Stevie is one of the most energetic and charismatic performers of all time … and 1969 was probably about five years before he burst into superstardom. Even so, by this point, Not So Little Stevie had already accumulated FIFTEEN National Top 40 Hits … yet instead of showing him performing ANY of them, they instead chose to show Stevie doing a five minute drum solo to a song that wasn’t even his!
Now if you’re going to
showcase a talent like Stevie Wonder, why would you waste valuable screen time showing
him doing a drum solo instead of Stevie performing one or two of his big hits? And honestly, who out there among us has been dying to
see Stevie behind the drums? You wanna hear him SING!!!
There were just too many incidents like this that caused me to lose interest. In between all of the poor song choices came all the preachy stuff that eventually just wore me down. I wanted to see more … I’d been looking forward to this release for MONTHS now … ever since I first heard of its existence … but I’m sorry, gang … you lost me in the shuffle.
(I did hear from others that Sly and the Family Stone put on a KILLER performance ... one described it as "virtually interchangeable with the show they put on at Woodstock" ... and I WILL come back and watch that segment ... because THOSE are the kind of highlights I'm talking about as being sorely lacking. In fact, my guess is that I'll eventually make it a point to watch the whole film ... because SO many people can't be wrong with their glowing reviews. I just need a few minutes to clear my head enough to approach this with a fresh and open state of mind!)
Now, all of that being said, one can only hope that because of the interest this film has stirred (it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at The Sundance Film Festival … and garnered a 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes) that perhaps the cut that the majority of us want to see may come out as a sequel … you know, almost like another one of those “Let It Be” do-overs!!! (There could be HUNDREDS of hours of unused film footage sitting there waiting to be handled with tender loving care. I can only hope that someone, somewhere, sometime will be afforded the opportunity to sift through it all again and put together the ultimate COLLECTORS’ cut ... because the existing Director’s cut just left me flat and wanting for more.)
The simple fact is that this film could have been SO great … but instead it lost even me, someone who would have been PROUD to be a staunch supporter. And that’s a shame … because I don’t know that I will ever get past what this film COULD have been … and SHOULD have been. (Man, I would just LOVE to see all of the remarkable footage that they DIDN’T use!!! I can only salivate at the prospect of the film we COULD have made had someone with a keen eye and appreciation for this music could have lent to the project with a goal of better mass-marketing this thing to an all-encompassing public that would have sucked it up in droves.) I absolutely believed that Questlove was the right guy to make that happen ... but now I'm not so sure. (kk)
More on The Fifth Dimension
and their producer Bones Howe … from Harvey The K ...
The 5th Dimension are pictured on the cover of the new issue of "Shindig!" magazine (#116.)
For decades I've actively touted this group in published articles and books. You should try hearing their 1966 - 1969 catalog ... Sonic delights.
In 2012, I did this interview with the legendary engineer / record producer Bones Howe, who was behind the board on many of the poptastic 5th Dimension recordings.
Bones Howe and Harvey Kubernik
“Lou Adler played a big part in my career," volunteered Bones Howe in a 2012 interview we conducted. "When I started producing, Louie was my mentor. I learned so much about what is in a producer’s head as opposed to what is in an engineer or musician’s head. I learned about the other side, watching him bring up Trousdale Music and Dunhill Records. And you can’t be a hit producer if you can’t find great songs. Lou sitting and listening to all those demos at Screen Gems 1960 - 1963.
“On January 1, 1967, I made up my mind to be a record producer and stop being a drummer and engineer for hire or a producer for hire."
Johnny Rivers had discovered the 5th Dimension, who were originally known as The Hi-Fi’s, in 1966 and signed them to his Soul City record label, done with Imperial Records. Howe produced Rivers and also pacted Jimmy Webb to his music publishing house and produced the 5th Dimension’s “Up Up And Away,” a Webb tune that Howe engineered.
Howe took over the group's musical activities. He selected material from Webb: “Carpet Man” and “Paper Cup,” and scripture from the Laura Nyro songbook: “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness” and also cut Nyro on “Save The Country.” The 5th Dimension also waxed “California Soul” by the immortal Valerie Simpson and Nicholas Ashford songwriting team.
“I produced ‘Windy’ by the Association and went to number one and made ‘Never My Love,’ which also went to number one.
"Johnny Rivers called me up. I had been the engineer on the ‘Up, Up and Away’ album. He asked me if I would be interested in producing the Association. ‘Yeah!’ And he said the first thing was that I’m to do an album with Jimmy Webb called ‘The Magic Garden.’ ‘He wants to do a big orchestra.’ ‘If you’re willing to pay for it I know what to do. We will go into the big studio at United and record the tracks there and I’ll put the voices.’
The album really didn’t have a single in it. From one record to the next, I began to find things that could get played on the radio. Jimmy wrote these beautiful harmonies. He was the hippest songwriter in town. All of his songs have major sevenths and major ninths ... all those altered chords like you find in jazz. So that was what I thought was very attractive. He also wrote beautiful melodies. It was fine doing those things with Jimmy.
"Somebody once introduced themselves to me with the line ‘You’re Bones Howe. You work with Jimmy Webb.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How does he sleep with all that music in his head?’
“I was actively working with music publishers. I heard Laura Nyro’s ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ on KHJ radio ‘cause Bill Drake the RKO programmer liked the record. Then I saw Laura at the Monterey festival in 1967.
"I thought Laura was amazing and it was almost jazz what she was doing. Laura was different. She had some L.A studio musicians with her at Monterey like Hal Blaine, who also worked with Johnny Rivers. I did a session with her on ‘Save The Country.’ Clive (Davis) called me and asked me if I would do it.’ She wanted to do it very badly and she wanted to use the West Coast rhythm section.
"So Clive flew her out and we did it. She was a dear woman and I really loved her. She would play me stuff on the piano and it would just be bits and pieces of stuff and I would keep saying, ‘Finish it!’ R&B radio stations played ‘Stone Soul Picnic.’ It was a number one R&B hit. I kept mining the Nyro and Webb mines. I kept finding stuff I loved and it got easier when we got rolling on it.
“On the 5th Dimension, it was Hal Blaine on everything. And Joe Osborn. He played the bass the way I thought, as a jazz player, rock ‘n’ roll players should play the bass. Joe and Hal together really had the lock and the feel. Those guys were just amazing together. I discovered Joe doing those Johnny Rivers records with Lou Adler. Mickey Jones was the drummer on the first Rivers sessions. And then Dennis Budimir and Tommy Tedesco … jazz guys. That’s kind of how I built a rhythm section. A lot of it was conversation. I always started my session in the room. The lead sheets would go out, but I always started with the guys and stood out there with them as they ran the first tune. I hated the disembodied voice that came from the control room to the floor telling everybody what to do.
“The 5th are in New York and somebody had given them tickets to see ‘HAIR.’ They told me about an amazing song called ‘Aquarius.’ ‘We can do that song and it will be a big hit.’ I listened to the song and felt it wasn’t a whole song. I went to New York with my wife Melodie and we went to see ‘HAIR.’
"I’m watching this thing unfold and I realize ‘Aquarius’ is simply just like an introduction to the show. It doesn’t go anywhere. And then in a pair of shorts comes down sliding on a wire and they sing ‘The Flesh Failures,’ a downer of a song talking about how civilization is going to hell. But then the chorus came in … ‘Let the sunshine in’ … three bars being repeated. ‘Oh shit! That’s how we do it.’ But I couldn’t do this until I got permission from the music publisher.”
"I went to United Artists, who had the copyright," Bones explained. "I played the two things for the 5th Dimension and then told them we will do the chorus at the end.
“With the 5th Dimension, I also had Bob Alcivar, a vocal arranger on the team. We worked close together. He would help me find the keys for the singers to do the songs and coax them vocally. He found ways to help them. Bob would sit at the piano with each member and teach them their part. He was a huge asset ... and he made a tremendous contribution and I couldn’t go forward with any song until he figured out what key we would do that these guys could sing it in. That was a partnership we had with the things that we had.
“On ‘Aquarius’ during production, Bob Alcivar went, ‘They’re in different keys! How are we going to get these things together?’ ‘We’re gonna hook them together like two trains. We will record them separately and I will find a way to put them together with Hal.’"