This article originally appeared on the International Film Society Critics website.
How do you properly capture electric energy in a documentary? When Sly and the Family Stone is jamming psychedelic funk in the middle of a park in Harlem in 1969, a steady camera and an uninterrupted shot won’t do. For the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), director Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson make what could have been a straightforward documentary into a dynamically brilliant retelling of the feelings of concertgoers.
That’s not to say the filmmakers don’t know when to dial it back. While the high-energy performances of Stevie Wonder and The Chambers Brothers are fast-cutting, the gospel performances of Mahala Jackson and The Staple Singers are given the patience and reverence they deserve.
On top of it all, the performances take literal center stage over the interviews. Instead of the talking heads dominating the action with the archival footage complimenting the words, the interviews only enhance what is being shown. It’s never too much talking. The eye is always on the prize.
These days, Best Film Editing is a benchmark for Best Picture success. In fact, only twice in the last 40 years has the Best Picture winner missed an Editing nomination (2014 and 2017). But, Best Film Editing is not a category that documentaries have been excluded from. In 1994, nominated alongside Best Picture nominees Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption was the classic basketball doc Hoop Dreams.
If the Academy wants to look back to that film as an example of the power of sharp editing in a documentary, nominating Summer of Soul would continue that great tradition.