In the summer of 1969, while men were touching down on the moon and the hippies were touching down in Woodstock, something big was also happening in Mount Morris Park, New York City, the site of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Over six weeks, nearly 300,000 people attended the event. The packed line-up included artists such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King and many, many more and was all captured on film by producer Hal Tulchin, who recorded over 40 hours worth of footage.
That footage sat in a basement for 50 years.
Enter Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, co-founder and co-frontman of the legendary hip hop band The Roots, who now adds film directing to his already formidable resume. Condensing the reels down to a two-hour run time, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) jumps between footage and interviews of festival-goers and artists watching for the first time. Questlove weaves a history lesson of everything leading to that moment and beyond, as well as a joyous celebration of black culture and community that is as important now as it was then.
We caught up with Questlove to discuss the project, the quality of the footage, and how his other skills helped craft new ones.
BeatRoute: Congratulations on the film. What an incredible debut. When did you first learn about the footage?
Questlove: I first inadvertently saw the footage in Tokyo in 1997. My translator knew I was a soul fan so took me to a place called The Soul Train Cafe. Unbeknownst to me, I was watching footage from the Sly and the Family Stone show but I didn’t know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. Exactly 20 years later, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told me they had this footage and they wanted me to direct it.
BR: At what part of the process did you feel the greatest shift in yourself as an artist and storyteller?
Questlove: This project has helped me develop as a human being. Sometimes artists can be really neurotic, living in our own heads. I’ve often created things behind a shield, behind a drum set, behind Jimmy, behind turntables. I’ve had the safety net of Instagram or a book and that’s always how I thought I liked it. But I’ll admit that of all the things I’ve been involved with creatively, this is the one I was really nervous about, and by nervous I mean scared because I’m a perfectionist. But this film really brought out an awareness and confidence that I never knew I had.
BR: As a DJ, were there any parallels between using those muscles and how you assembled the footage in a way that tells a story?
Questlove: I took the same approach to putting a show together. For five months, no matter where I was, it was on a 24-hour loop. If anything gave me goosebumps, I made a note of it. I work backward whenever I’m working on something, so the first thing I think about is the last 10 minutes because that’s your chance to Men in Black flashy-thing the audience. I’ve done that at disastrous shows, to make people forget about what came before and go home happy. I figured the best way to crash land as a director was with the Stevie Wonder drum solo, as we’ve not seen him in this light before. I knew my beginning and had my end so worked backward from there.
BR: What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?
Questlove: When I’m DJing, you think you’re just dancing to music but I’m really testing you. There’s no time in which I’m not conducting an experiment and looking for reactions. One thing I always notice when playing soul for younger people, they tend to find James Brown’s yelling humorous. We live in a meme/gif culture so that primal musical expression of context seems funny but I wanted people to know that that was more of a therapeutic thing than anything. Whether it’s a gospel singer catching the spirit or Sonny Sharrock doing one of the most destructive violent solos, I want people to know that this just isn’t black people acting wild and crazy, this was therapeutic because we didn’t know about the functional family or therapy and life coaches that we have now.
BR: How much work did it take to make the audio work as well as it did in the final cut?
Questlove: We had to do a maybe 2% adjustment. I’m trying to figure out for the life of me how 12 microphones were utilized so powerfully. I’m almost tempted to strip down the Roots ourselves. I called my production manager to tell him they only used 12 to 15 microphones and it sounds perfect, how many do we use? With a straight face, he says “All 11 of you? You guys use 103.” I’m trying to figure out if we can even survive with just 15 microphones.
BR: The big impacts in the film come from the interviews, can you talk about your reactions to theirs and how that shaped the film emotionally?
Questlove: I’ll say the emotional component of the film was something that I wasn’t prepared for but if they touched on something, I might have investigated the emotional trigger. With the Fifth Dimension, they were so composed and steady but this performance was closer to gospel. I’d never heard Billy Davis Jr use his raspy gospel baritone and they opened the door and said it’s because they were comfortable. There wasn’t the pressure of being on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was something I related to, because I realized black people code-switch all the time, not just in the office space but even in entertainment. I’m a guy that has to adjust a show if we’re playing with Beck or Wu-Tang Clan or System of a Down. We have to ask what part of town are we in? What does the audience look like? I’m looking at David Ruffin’s performance, it’s the middle of August and he’s wearing a wool tuxedo. Why? Because back then you had to be professional even to the detriment of your own comfort. Meanwhile, the most revolutionary performance to that audience was Sly and the Family Stone. All the kids are losing their minds but the adults had never seen a black act not wearing a tuxedo.
BR: You’ve talked a lot about the erasure of Black history in the way this footage was disregarded but it seems that erasure was apparent then. What are the keys to pushing back on similar erasure today and beyond?
Questlove: The most shocking thing that I’ve learned is people letting me know that this or that person shot concert footage for 20 hours for some festival here or there. So this isn’t the only footage that’s just laying around untouched. I hope this film is the start of a sea of change for these stories to finally get out and acknowledge that these things are important to our history. In other conversations, the usual process is that we talk about it for three months and then we forget about it so that remains to be seen but this is not my last rodeo with telling our stories.
BR: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. We can’t wait to see what you do next!
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) will be in theatres and available to stream on Hulu in the U.S and in theatres and available to stream on Disney+ Star in Canada on July 2.