THE HARLEM CULTURAL FESTIVAL GETS NOTICED DECADES LATER IN QUESTLOVE'S “SUMMER OF SOUL” Donny Levit
Maplewood’s Lizzy McGlynn helps guide the film’s context
August 15, 1969. You may not be able to remember the date, but you certainly know the name of that music event which was attended by 400,000 people on a dairy farm in the Catskills. Woodstock is ubiquitous as a cultural and counter-cultural touchstone.
Now let’s back up one month.
July 20, 1969. Broadcast journalist and anchorman Walter Cronkite was reporting live as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Somewhere between 125 to 150 million people were glued to their screens to witness those images and hear the voices of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin narrate those historic moments. Cheers erupted throughout the country, including spontaneous revelry in Central Park. Celebrants gushed to news reporters as the astronauts collected moon rocks on the newly named Tranquility Base.
In a park further north in Manhattan, another stunning celebration was taking place. But the moon rocks had absolutely nothing to do with it.
On that very same day, a stage in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park would feature Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, who were performing as part of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a celebration of African American culture and music. Some referred to the event as “Black Woodstock.”
The park – renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973 – was packed with ebullient Harlem neighbors and concertgoers. But when it came to celebrating the moon landing, the responses were less than enthusiastic.
“The cash they waste as far as I’m concerned getting to the moon could have fed poor, Black people in Harlem and all over this country,” says one Harlem resident, in response to a reporter’s question. “Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”
Footage from these events is one of many engrossing sequences in Summer of Soul, a newly released documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Until now, the Harlem Cultural Festival has gone largely unnoticed. The film chronicles and explores the event, six weekends of Black music which took place in the summer of 1969. And Maplewood’s Lizzy McGlynn, who served as the film’s archival producer, had a major hand in putting that archival sequence together.
“I’ve spent loads of years doing all kinds of different projects. And it got to the point where I became – in my small little world – known for being able to find things,” says McGlynn when asked about how she defines her job as an archival producer. “I come from a researcher’s background and you just want to discover everything about a subject from all points of view – and synthesize it together.”
“This footage is a perfect example of what an archivist does and why Lizzy is so good at it,” says Robert Fyvolent, one of the three producers credited on the film. “From my perspective, an archivist has to know where to look and obviously Lizzy has amazing outreach and knowledge in that regard. The filmmakers knew that the landing had taken place during the festival and wanted to comment on it. We knew from non-visual materials and anecdotes that the audience had mixed feelings at best. So when an archivist is able to give you material that validates the themes and ideas in your documentary, that can be incredibly powerful and is an invaluable achievement.”
A Maplewood resident since 2013, McGlynn’s career path to becoming an archival producer has taken fascinating twists and turns. However, her curiosity and tenacity can be traced all the way back to her Texas panhandle upbringing.
McGlynn’s parents taught and worked at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she grew up in a close-knit academic environment and took a particular interest in social psychology, her father’s field of study. Although she didn’t complete her psychology graduate work at University of Delaware, her mentor there suggested she take her burgeoning skills and apply them to market research, where statistics and data play a huge role.
In addition, McGlynn was drawn to New York City. “My sister [Dr. Mary McGlynn, who is also a current resident of Maplewood] was up here doing her Ph.D. and invited me up on spring break of my senior year in college. I always thought it was full of stuck-up East Coast people, you know … the stereotype. But then I got off that bus in Port Authority, and it was one of those moments that I still get goosebumps whenever I think about it. I’m a fast person and I’d never felt quite right in Lubbock.”
McGlynn received her M.F.A. in radio and television from Brooklyn College. “My real interest to do that was because of Malcolm Gladwell. I saw a way to take what he was doing and turn it into podcasts,” she says. “I was obsessed with podcasts. This American Life was already a thing. I loved radio and l loved listening.” McGlynn would then intern at the Brian Lehrer Show at WNYC and work in promotion at WNET. However, she credits her job as a production assistant at ABC News as the launching pad for her archival career.
As McGlynn began combing through footage while working on a project about Princess Diana at ABC, she started developing ways to organize tape, timecodes, and edits that made searching for items a far more streamlined process. “This was the first time when I saw how my data analysis really came together with making media, because you have to take this media and then catalog it. It becomes almost like a library science,” she says.
McGlynn later led an archival team on The Great War, a six-hour-long documentary on World War I. “I had a small baby at home, and it was hard, but also it was amazing. […] Our consultant, who had a Ph.D. in horses in WWI – yes, horses! – told me once that I had an assistant professor’s knowledge of WWI. That was my greatest moment.”
“While Mike Wadleigh’s Woodstock and the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter have long been considered definitive documents of the highs and lows of 1969 pop culture, Summer of Soul makes both look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that was somehow written out of the history books,” writes Guardian film critic Mark Kermode in his five-star review that suggests it could be the best concert film ever made. The primary concert had not been given a proper viewing until Questlove took on the project. However, it was the additional footage McGlynn worked on that added the vital political, social, and historical context that weaves the documentary together.
“I’m thinking in my head and already constructing a story. I know I’m going to cover everything from JFK to Medgar Evers…you get this sort of list so you have a clear sense of history. The '60s are burnt in my head, but every time I learn new things,” says McGlynn, explaining her thought process as she begins her research. “It also gives the viewer a sense of comfort in the material to see those pieces of iconic footage.”
In the Summer of Soul footage, the camera focuses not only on the performers, but also the audience members and their responses to the music. “The concert attendees are telling what the audience is feeling. And their remarks – layered with music, layered with archival footage – give a gestalt that’s unmistakable,” she says. “And it is about what those people felt. The energy is so dense and the message is so clear that you can’t help but be moved by it. That’s the magic, the special sauce in this show.”
“One of the interesting things about documentaries, and this one in particular, is how the story is crafted and fine-tuned, as the research begins. So having someone like Lizzy use her knowledge and resources to find great material helps in multiple ways,” says Fyvolent. “Not only does it provide choices of things that will end up in the film, but the actual review of even potential archives gathered also helps in shaping story.”
Although McGlynn began her work on Summer of Soul before the pandemic began, she and the rest of the production team moved to their respective homes, where typical collaborations could not take place.
In one of the earliest moments of the documentary, a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder is playing drums with jaw dropping passion and delight. It’s certainly not the first instrument that comes to mind when thinking about the musician’s immense talent. Wonder’s performance is followed by other music giants of soul, blues, gospel, and jazz.
“Questlove is a music savant. He sits there and he just watches the footage, and he comes in one day, and I think he’s the one with the idea to open with Stevie playing drums,” says McGlynn of working with Questlove. “He lives, breathes, and is immersed in the music. That’s where he shines, and that’s what this film is, and that’s why he’s so interesting. Everything that you see in the media [about Questlove] and the way you feel about him, and how he feels about the world – it’s there. He cares about every single person he works with and he was always so kind.”
Like so many Maplewood residents, both McGlynn and her husband, Mark Reilly, a UX designer, were both working from home throughout the pandemic. “(Mark) has a master’s in medieval history and he has a degree in film. He’s one of these lifelong learners – he also has a Ph.D. in media and communications, “ she says. “He’s just a thoughtful philosopher and historian. He’s awesome and you would love him.” The couple have two children: 9-year-old Roxy and 6-year-old Frankie, who currently attend school at Our Lady of Sorrows in South Orange.
“l feel like Maplewood isn’t pressure-free, but there is that camaraderie here where you can feel comfortable in a bubble and know that people around you are working in your industry, understand what you’re doing, and care about your intellectual pursuits,” says McGlynn. “It’s nice to have neighbors who I love…which is a big part of everything.”
McGlynn is already deep into research on several new projects. And one of her latest – “Citizen Ashe” – is slated to be released in 2022. The documentary will focus on Wimbledon tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe. But for those of you looking to sink your teeth into your neighbor’s work sooner than that, you won’t have to search too hard to find a Lizzy McGlynn project.
Summer of Soul, is currently streaming on Hulu.
Donny Levit is a writer, Maplewood resident and the author of "Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories." Hear him DJ his indie rock show "Under the Influence" and his jazz show "Kind of Pool" on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him at @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.