The musician talked about his transition to a film director for the Searchlight Pictures film.
During the summer of 1969, thousands gathered in Mount Morris Park for the first Harlem Cultural Festival. It was a Renaissance of black art, music, and culture. With acts such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Nina Simone, the Harlem Cultural Festival was deemed one of the largest music events in African American history, but somehow its historic feat has often been forgotten. Film taken from the event was seemingly lost in time. Now, a new documentary ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’ explores the significance of the festival with actual footage and interviews with attendees and music acts. The film is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of “The Roots.”
The Knockturnal had the pleasure of speaking with Questlove about the documentary and his research in bringing the event back into the spotlight.
The Knockturnal: Why was the Harlem cultural festival so significant for you to choose as a subject?
Questlove: A lot of it was just the curiosity of did this happen or not? Because what you have to understand is that before our announcement, before 2017 of this film actually about to happen — there was little to no information on it. Even as I was approached about it, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this actually happened. So when I was getting the calls about “these guys would like to meet you” and ask you about doing this or whatever.” I thought, “well, what’s it about?” Well, you know, that concert with Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and The Staple Singers. The first thing you do is that you go to Google and you look it up and well, there’s nothing here about that. I kind of came in the situation when my arms folded and my eyebrow raised like I’m not sure. Only for them to counter punch with “well, here’s the 40 hours of footage if you don’t believe us,” and then I was perplexed. The footage is pristine and it’s awesome. How come this didn’t come out? So for me, that was the burning question. The burning question was why it didn’t see the light of day?
The Knockturnal: Well, why do you believe that this festival was buried away for 50 years?
Questlove: It’s really easy to dismiss something. I know that this has been painted as if it was being held hostage against its will somewhere, actually, the story is much more than that. It was more of a benign and there’s nothing worse than not being believed and sort of like just being dismissed. This is something I consider almost worse than if somebody made a plot to run to Hal Tolson’s basement to burn the tapes because they wanted to destroy history. To me, for it to just be like a shrug is almost like indifference. People think that hate is the opposite of love and really indifference is the opposite. So that’s how it was treated. It was just sort of like “maybe someone else will want it.” After a while, Hal Tolson just gave up, and they’ve come close, but in the last 20 years or so for some reason it never came to be. I think the purpose of the whole thing was just to keep New York from burning. It was 1969. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a year ago, and people were in pain, and their pain came out in the result of riots. It was sort of like once New York got saved for that summer it was sort of like “okay, next,” and it was forgotten about.
The Knockturnal: What were the first steps in getting this documentary running and getting access to the archival footage?
Questlove: Well, I will say that my first step was finding the right people to preserve the film, to bake the film, to treat it, to lightly brush it, that part took us about five months to do. Meanwhile, because of previous attempts to sell it before, we had the footage on various outlets like VHS, DVD so I compiled a master MPEG of the performances. I just kept it on a constant loop for those five months that they were actually making the tapes to transfer them to digital. To have 40 hours of film to process is a long, tedious thing. I felt the best way to process it was just to leave it on loop like a constant jukebox, or it was like my aquarium, just let it on loop. Even if I was asleep, I left it on loop for five months. The TV never came off. If something hit me, if it really gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. Even if I was asleep and I heard something, I took notes. Once we had about 30 to 40 of those moments, then we add a foundation and then the story really tells itself because a lot of the things that you saw in the film I wasn’t aware of until something in that footage revealed it to me. For example, the moon landing sequence. Stevie Wonder’s whole performance comes from a whole showbiz professional Motown school. His presentation of his performance was like post Vaudeville, where his musical director and him have this sort of playful Abbott and Costello, Three Stooges banter. There’s a point where his music director is talking to Stevie and reminds Stevie that there’s a man on the moon right now, then you start to hear boos from the audience. I was like “wait, what?” Because I grew up in an environment where that was celebrated and I was in fourth grade, and we’re drinking Tang, and we’re learning about the moon landing and all that stuff. My school taught me to be like “that was a great thing.” I didn’t really realize there was disdain for that.
The Knockturnal: I’ve seen many deem the Harlem Cultural Festival “Black Woodstock,” do you believe giving it this name takes away its importance as a black cultural festival?
Questlove: Hal Tolson was kind of a desperate last-minute and decided to call this film “Black Woodstock” simply because he couldn’t believe the amount of “no’s” he was getting from movie executives about this. When Woodstock came out and it became successful, and he was like “I have a black version of that.” He started calling it “Black Woodstock” to have them get the context that this is important too, and it was passed on. So for me in the beginning, it was keeping on to the title to keep on to Hal Tolson’s dream who died maybe a month after he gave the footage to us. But more than that, I thought “well we talk about cultural appropriation” so let’s do a reverse, we’ll appropriate Woodstock. I will say that my partner Joseph Patel explained to me that “this film deserves to stand on its own two feet, in its own light, and on its own merit, not attached to the coattails of the Woodstock Festival.” It’s doing a disservice that goes against everything we built up. At the very last minute, the very last thing we did was change it to “Summer of Soul.” I begged to put the subtitle in there too because I gotta have one raspberry so the whole byline “Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised…,” was my way of letting people know how hard it was to get to this point.
The Knockturnal: While today we have different styles, different music, and we’re in a different time, did you find anything in the archival footage that mirrored the present day?
Questlove: Narrative-wise, the reason why this film really hits home is that the same exact things that were happening 50 years ago are still happening right now. This is a spooky mirror to look into. If anything, I wish that the amount of openness that was back in 1969. For example, if you watch the audience, they’re just as enthused for Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln as they are for the Fifth dimension as they were for Sonny Sharrock. I just feel like there was an openness to something new. It’s almost the one flaw of where we are today. There’s a moment in Sly and the Family Stone’s encore where he gives a speech and says, “I know you might think it’s squared to do what I say on the stage—if I tell you to raise your hands higher, just do it. It feels good and let’s celebrate it. Don’t wait for your neighbor because your neighbor might be waiting for approval from you. ” That’s what I think is mostly happening now. It’s often hard to make decisions without taking a focus group. All of us go on Yelp to see what this restaurant is like because no one wants to go into a situation blind. I’ll say that. The one difference between then and now that I wish was in reverse is the openness and the adventure to try out something awesome and new. That’s untested.
‘Summer Of Soul’ is now in select theaters and on Hulu.