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Documentaries 'Summer Of Soul' And 'McCartney 3-2-1' Celebrate The Sound Of The '60s

Jul 10, 2021

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The streaming service Hulu has two new documentaries this month, looking back on music from the '60s. One is called "Summer Of Soul," a new film also showing in theaters presenting never-before-seen footage from a summer of 1969 concert series in Harlem that some have called the Black Woodstock. The other is called "McCartney 3, 2, 1" a six-part series in which Paul McCartney talks to producer Rick Rubin, deconstructing many old recordings from his Beatles and early solo days.

The new Hulu documentary "Summer Of Soul" is the first film directed by Ahmir Thompson, who is better known as Questlove, the leader of the Roots. He and the Roots are the house band for Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show." But Questlove should give some serious thought to quitting his night job. His first movie is such a confident and intelligent and entertaining effort, he has to make more. "Summer Of Soul" is a revelation, a record of a mostly forgotten summer music festival that was staged in 1969 over six weekends in Harlem's Mount Morris Park, since renamed Marcus Garvey Park. Admission was free, and the line up that summer, the same summer as Woodstock, was amazingly eclectic. It included everyone from Stevie Wonder and the 5th Dimension to B.B. King and Sly & the Family Stone, who electrified that audience in Harlem two months before doing the same at Woodstock, singing very funky songs about togetherness.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) We got to live together. There is a yellow one that can't accept the black one that won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one. Different strokes for different folks and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo (ph)...

BIANCULLI: Just showing these performances would be enough because most of this footage hasn't been seen until now. But Questlove, as a director, puts his musical taste and timing to great use. When Pop Staples and The Staple Singers are performing the song, "It's Been A Change," Questlove intercuts each lyric with the sounds of another event happening that day, the moon landing, complete with chatter from the astronauts and commentary from CBS anchor Walter Cronkite.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #1: Room for landing.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #2: We're go - same time (ph). We're go.

POP STAPLES: Come on, now. (Unintelligible) Just sing out.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #3: Seventy-five feet.

POP STAPLES: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #3: Guys looking good (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #1: Sixty seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #2: Lights on (ph).

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Some are pushing hard.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #1: (Unintelligible) To the right a little.

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Some are holding back.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #1: (Unintelligible).

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) You know it's a shame....

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #1: Thirty seconds.

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) ...The way some act.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #3: (Unintelligible) Two-and-a-half down.

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) The president said, we would overcome.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTRONAUT #3: (Unintelligible).

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) We got to keep pushing till the work is done.

WALTER CRONKITE: Man on the moon - oh, boy, boy.

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singer) It's been a change. It's been change.

BIANCULLI: And as the song continues to build, so does the context, as Cronkite hands off to a reporter covering the Harlem Festival itself who interviews members of the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

CRONKITE: There was a large crowd gathered in Harlem this afternoon. For some of the reaction there, correspondent Bill Plante.

BILL PLANTE: There are 40,000, perhaps 50,000 people at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, but they are not here watching the moon landing. They are here at the Soul Festival, part of the third annual Harlem Cultural Festival. And for many of them, this is far more relevant than the mission of Apollo 11.

What's your feeling now that the astronauts have landed safely on the moon?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think it's very important, but I don't think it's any more relevant than, you know, the Harlem Cultural Festival here. I think it's equal.

PLANTE: What are your thoughts?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As far as science goes and everybody that's involved with the moon landing and the astronauts, it's beautiful, you know. Like me, I couldn't care less.

PLANTE: This is - this means more to you than that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Much more - cash they wasted, as far as I'm concerned, in getting to the moon could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over the place, all over this country. So, you know, like never mind the moon. Let's get some of that cash in Harlem.

BIANCULLI: "Summer Of Soul," now streaming on Hulu, is a fascinating look back. So is "McCartney, 3, 2, 1" a six-part series that premieres on Hulu all at once on July 16. Music producer Rick Rubin, who has done seminal work with Run DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash, runs McCartney's old master tapes through a mixing board, isolating separate tracks and asking lots of questions about inspiration, process and creative choices. It's a deep dive into the music, some from McCartney's early solo albums and Wings, but mostly from his days with the Beatles. And even though McCartney has told most of these stories before, they're amplified here by clips from other sources, by the isolated audio tracks and by McCartney's animated reactions.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MCCARTNEY 3, 2, 1")

PAUL MCCARTNEY: With Penny Lane, I'd come into the studio - and the night before, I happened to be watching on television the Brandenburg Concertos from Bach.

RICK RUBIN: Yeah.

MCCARTNEY: I just kind of go around in the background almost. You know, I'm listening to it. And then there's a little trumpet, very high little trumpet that Bach uses. And I came in the next day - I said to George - said George - Martin...

RUBIN: Yeah.

MCCARTNEY: ...Said, what was that? He said, oh, that's a piccolo trumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF REI PANDA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "BRANDENBURG CONCERTO NO. 2 IN F MAJOR, BWV 1047: III. ALLEGRO ASSAI")

MCCARTNEY: The thing about George - he knew all the best players...

RUBIN: Yeah.

MCCARTNEY: ...From the classical orchestras. And there's a guy called David Mason who was a really good player. And so we just booked him. So we go in there. We've done the track. And where do you put this? We've left room for a solo. (Unintelligible) David, so to say, OK, so what do you we want to play? And I go (vocalizing) And they oh, ok, well - and they're writing it down (vocalizing). So we were kind of making it up on the spot.

RUBIN: Yeah.

MCCARTNEY: And so I went (vocalizing) and put, like, an impossible high note. And David Mason turns to me, says, well, that's officially out of the range of the piccolo trumpet even. And I kind of give him a look like, yeah. Like, you can do it, you know? He goes, OK. So he plays it. And it's - it haunted him for the rest of his life, you know?

RUBIN: (Laughter).

MCCARTNEY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "PENNY LANE")

RUBIN: Flute's beautiful, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "PENNY LANE")

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. And it's a mix of the two (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PENNY LANE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

BIANCULLI: That's only one song and only one excerpt, but you get the idea. The stories about compositions not written by McCartney are just as good, especially John Lennon's "Come Together" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." If you were around during the '60s or love the music from that era, you just have to watch and also listen to both "McCartney 3, 2, 1" and "Summer Of Soul."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) And I look at the world, and I notice it's turning while my guitar gently weeps.

BIANCULLI: Monday on FRESH AIR, "The Startup Wife" - we talk with Tahmima Anam. Her new, witty novel is about a young married couple who create a platform using algorithms to customize ceremonies and rituals for people who aren't religious. The platform's success turns the husband into a messiah figure, even though it's the wife who created the idea and the coding. Tahmima Anam was born in Bangladesh and has written fiction and nonfiction about the Bangladesh war in which her father fought. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I don't know how you were diverted. You were perverted, too. I don't know how you were inverted. No one alerted you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.