Film reviews: Summer of Soul | The Birthday Cake | Jumbo | Deerskin
Ahmir Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul brings to life the Harlem Culture Festival of 1969 – an event attended by more than a quarter of a million people which subsequently sunk without trace. Reviews by Alistair Harkness
Summer of Soul (Or when the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (12A) ****
The Birthday Cake (15) **
Jumbo (15) ****
Deerskin (15) ***
There’s a lot to unpack in the playfully elongated title of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Referring in the first instance to a season of outdoor music festivals that took place in Harlem in the summer of 1969, the elliptical nod to Gil Scott-Heron’s Black Power anthem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised pointedly calls out the systemic racism that resulted in the concert footage subsequently gathering dust in a vault, effectively erasing the event – until now – from a pop culture landscape dominated by the Woodstock nostalgia machine.
Given the lightening-in-a-bottle nature of some of that footage – 19-year-old Stevie Wonder’s working his magic on his clavinet, the psychedelic peacockery of Sly and the Family Stone, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson exorcising a community’s grief with a rendition of Martin Luther King’s favourite song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord – that’s something of a travesty. But Questlove uses this to his advantage, smartly contextualising the vibrancy and freshness of the performances within the social and political tumult of the era and drawing on new interviews with key performers, organisers, cultural figures and ordinary attendees to give a real sense of its historical importance.
Taking place over six consecutive weekends from June until August 1969, the Harlem Culture Festival, as it was known, drew an estimated 300,000 locals with the express purpose of celebrating all aspects of Black culture while also serving up a positive way to defuse some of the tension that had brought rioting to the neighbourhood in the aftermath of King’s assassination the previous year. It had the backing of New York’s somewhat progressive mayor John Lyndsay, corporate sponsorship from Maxwell House, and the concerts themselves went off without hitch. And yet the producers couldn’t find a buyer for the footage, despite a roster of talent that also included Nina Simone, BB King, Gladys Knight and David Ruffin of The Temptations. Questlove teases out plenty of great stories, but he also films interviewees watching the footage, capturing the profound effect it has on those suddenly able to vividly re-experience a moment that could too easily have remained a fading memory.
An intriguing cast and a gruesome twist almost help the The Birthday Cake rise above the all the Goodfellas and Sopranos references baked into the very essence of this New York mafia drama about a young Italian-American man doing his best to avoid getting sucked into the family business. Admittedly some of those parallels are simply down to first-time director Jimmy Giannopoulos being in a position to cast Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and Vincent Pastore in key roles. But he courts more groan-worthy comparisons by punctuating scenes of extreme violence with Scorsese-style needle-drops and deploying a terribly written voice-over narration that explains stuff that doesn’t need explaining.
Weirdly enough, that voice-over is delivered by Ewan McGregor, cast here as a Brooklyn-based Scottish priest whom we’re introduced to in the prologue as something of a guardian angel to Gio, the newly fatherless son of Bracco’s Sofia. Most of the action takes place ten years on, with Gio (now played by co-writer Shiloh Fernandez) on a mission to deliver a cake to his Uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer), a mob boss whose control of the streets has been waning since being shot in the throat. This last plot detail is used to explain away Kilmer’s real life reliance on a voice box following treatment for throat cancer. When he finally turns up on screen to preside over a tenth anniversary memorial celebration of Gia’s deceased father, his presence is strange and interesting in ways that the film could have used more of, especially when proceedings briefly go bananas. Mostly, though, this a pretty standard mob confection.
A much more successfully executed oddity can be found in Jumbo, the delightfully bonkers debut feature from Belgian filmmaker Zoé Wittock. Like a bizarre cross between Transformers and Crash, this French comedy/drama revolves around the sexual awakening of a young woman who falls in love with a fairground ride. Inspired by the true story of Erika Eiffel, the woman who married the Eiffel Tower, the film takes the desires of its protagonist, Jeanne (played by Noémie Merlant), seriously in order to try and understand her objectophilia (it’s a thing). But it’s the way Wittock manages to bring Jeanne’s relationship with the ride she nicknames Jumbo to life that really makes this fun. Despite all the sexual overtones (one scene has Jeanne orgasm while fantasising about writhing in oil), there’s a purity to the relationship that harks back to all those 1980s Spielbergian coming-of-age fantasies involving outsiders bonding with aliens or robots.
Coincidentally, an obsession with an inanimate object is also the subject of another French movie this week. In Deerskin, the latest from surrealist horror director Quentin Dupieux (Rubber), a middle-aged man’s quest to purchase a deerskin cowboy jacket leads him into a deranged spiral of murder and movie-making when his newfound love of his jacket convinces him it should be the only jacket in the world. It’s a one-gag movie and Dupieux doesn’t push his luck, keeping the running time lean and exploiting the comic potential of watching The Artist’s Jean Dujardin play a man coming apart at the seams.
Summer of Soul is in cinemas from 16 July and streams on Disney+ from 30 July; The Birthday Cake is on selected release in cinemas and streaming on premium digital platforms from 16 July; Jumbo is on selected release and streaming in virtual cinemas now; Deerskin is on selected release from 16 July
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