Sundance is ending exactly as it began: with the virtual equivalent of a standing ovation for the film that kicked off the whole fest. Last night, organizers handed out their annual Jury and Audience awards (the ceremony, naturally held via video chat this year, was hosted by Patton Oswalt), and to almost no one’s surprise, the big winner is Coda, Siân Heder’s unabashed crowd-pleaser about a teenager who’s the only hearing member of her family.
Coda, the first film that became available to watch through the fest’s virtual screening system last Thursday night, picked up both the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Feature (effectively, Sundance’s Best Picture) and the Audience Award for the same. This is actually fairly common at a festival where hype spreads like wildfire and jurors seem plenty susceptible to the readings of the invisible clap-o-meter that hangs over the Eccles Theater. (Last year, Minari won both prizes, too.) But this year’s jury—filmmaker Julie Dash, award-winning actor Cynthia Erivo, and novelist Hanya Yanagihara—went further than that double honor, also handing the film Best Director for U.S. Dramatic Feature and a special award for its ensemble. In case there was any lingering doubt that Coda is the film of the festival, remember that it also absolutely shattered the record set last year by Palm Springs for most money spent to acquire a film at the fest, with Apple shelling out a staggering $25 million for distribution rights.
Look, I’ve already said my piece on C0da, an undeniably nice film that nonetheless looked, to these eyes, like a constant tug-o-war between honest, specific drama and pure insta-indie formula. As Rolling Stone’s David Fear quipped on Twitter a few days off, “It lets you watch five different archetypal Sundance movies in just one two-hour slot.” The film’s coronation was probably inevitable. Sundance has long been a vital gear in the machine of the American movie industry, feeding the studio system its subsidiary mini-major hits (the summer Focus and Searchlight counter-programming) while serving as a kind of farm league for Hollywood’s future talent. Coda is far from empty and impersonal, but it does look like an executive’s dream indie: genuine cultural insight stuffed into a package of easily digested clichés.
Usually, I’m long gone before Sundance doles out its official hosannas, and end up kicking myself for missing one or more cherished selections. This year, though, with no plane to catch, I’ve found myself in the position of actually being able to catch up with winners after they’re announced but before the official end of the fest. And while Coda may have left me colder than most, I’m pleased to report that I’m pretty much on the same page as everyone else on Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the U.S. documentary favored by the jury and the audience in 2021.
Directed by Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, making his feature debut, Summer Of Soul is the latest in what’s becoming a very welcome mini-genre of lost-and-found concert films. Like the recent Amazing Grace and Rolling Thunder, the film has been assembled from a treasure trove of footage that basically sat in storage for decades. It depicts the Harlem Cultural Festival, a free concert series that ran in 1969 (the same summer as Woodstock) which drew a revolving lineup of mind-blowing headliners, from Mavis Staples to Nina Simone to Sly And The Family Stone. The multi-day event was professionally filmed with the intention of eventually being broadcast, but because both the artists on stage and the crowds gathered to watch them were predominately Black, the interest from TV networks just wasn’t there. Summer Of Soul unearths the whole utopian event and presents it as an artifact of buried communal joy—a historic cultural event neglected by history.
The performances alone are worth the price of admission. For just a few examples, we get a glimpse at the star power of a young Stevie Wonder, right on the cusp of his masterpiece period, as he switches from the mic to the drums for an ecstatic solo, and of David Ruffin holding a high note for a small eternity during a passionate rendition of “My Girl.” Questlove easily could have just strung together these moments into a greatest-hits setlist and his film would still be a must-see for any fan of what one talking head describes as “a cross-section of what was going on” in Black music at the time. But Summer Of Soul also sees the festival it revives and immortalizes as a pillar of celebratory unity at the end of a tumultuous decade, and keeps following different branches into new avenues of discussion, including life in Harlem circa 1969, the tragic assassinations of the period, the intersection of activism and music (with no police willing to provide security for the festival, the Black Panthers stepped into the role), the moment when The New York Times retired the use of the word “Negro,” and the moon landing, which occurred during one concert in the series and inspires a couple of candid variations in the crowd of what Gil Scott-Heron would say about the matter a year later.
For a process wonk, the logistics of putting on and shooting the festival—its organizers had to make sure the stage faced west, because the production crew had no lights they could set up—hold a special fascination. But truthfully, just about everything in the movie is fascinating, and Questlove’s years of DJing may inform his plain gift here for keeping the whole project racing along, from highlight to highlight, covering lots of ground without ever losing track of the hook, that unremarkable, unearthed document of a once-in-a-lifetime festival. It’s the rare concert film that’s every bit as exciting when it’s off the stage as when it’s on it. Or, okay, nearly as exciting. The lineup of this thing!
Summer Of Soul is even more of a no-brainer for the prizes it won than Coda is, and my well-documented resistance to uplift was no match at all for the undiluted joy it puts on display. Which is to say: good job, U.S. Documentary jury! (The World Doc deciders made a great call, too, handing their prize to the terrific Flee.) I’m less enamored of Hive, which likewise snatched several awards from the jury and the audience in the typically uneven World Dramatic competition (including Best Director, World Cinema Dramatic). What happened to spreading the wealth with these things, folks? This first-feature from writer-director Blerta Basholli dramatizes a true story of perseverance in a small town in Kosovo, where beekeeper Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) faces a harsh reality: that her husband, torn away to go fight in the war some time ago, may never be coming home. When her bees stop producing honey, the mother of two has to come up with a new source of income, quick. So she gets a driver’s license and begins selling ajvar, a Serbian red-pepper sauce, to the grocery store in town—a choice that rattles the chains of a community rather rigid in its gender roles.
Gashi grabs you with the soulful stoicism of her performance: She’s strong but not superhuman in her resiliency, making it easy to invest in her plight, navigating the obstacles of a life that’s suddenly pitted prosperity against the close-minded scorn of her neighbors. I also appreciated how Hive never quite sacrificed nuance for the sake of applause; the empowering arc of the material is productively complicated by how Fahrije is suspended in the amber of likely but not confirmed loss—the way she can’t quite progress through the mourning stages because she can’t be certain her husband is dead. Still, the film never really takes off dramatically, seeming content instead to simply observe its heroine as she dutifully trudges forward, weathering dirty looks, the occasional smashed window, and the complaints of her family. Dogged perseverance is inspiring but not always terribly exciting. Hive proves that even a moving true story sometimes requires some ingenuity of presentation—though in this case, there are obviously plenty who’d say (and vote) otherwise.