Summer of Soul is a new documentary featuring salvaged footage from 1969’s “Black Woodstock” in Harlem, although wags have quickly nicknamed the film Summer of Questlove, in a nod to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the multi-hyphenate drummer/DJ/producer deemed responsible for bringing this footage to the big screen.
Although that would only be partially true.
While Questlove directed the film, lending his considerable star power to bringing this forgotten footage to light, the story began in the dusty basement of jazz record label owner Karl Knudsen where, almost 50 years later, it was shared with film archivist Joe Lauro and veteran TV director Hal Tulchin.
This extraordinary footage – featuring a young Stevie Wonder alongside Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Staple Singers and the 5th Dimension among others – was filmed during the course of six summer Sunday open-air concerts, which were largely overshadowed by the massive three-day Woodstock festival happening at the same time.
Like traveling back in a Tardis, the musical performances take place against a backdrop of racial unrest as the black community still struggled to come to terms with the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Marking his directorial debut, Questlove strives to recover the meaningful spirit of the past – when the biggest names in African-American music, culture, and politics came together for six consecutive weeks for a landmark, transformational black cultural event, known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. By way of intimate, newly-restored footage, and recent interviews with attendees and the artists who performed, Summer of Soul documents the moment when the old school of the civil rights movement and new school of the Black Power movement shared the same stage, highlighted by spell-binding soul, R&B, gospel, blues, jazz, and Latin musical performances.
“A song isn’t just a song. It can capture a moment in time. It will tell you a story, if you look close enough. The story of Summer of Soul is my voice,” says Questlove, 50, whose film has already nabbed both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.
Born in Philadelphia to musical parents, Questlove thought he knew his stuff – both as the drummer and frontman for hip-hop band The Roots and as a music journalist and author – but even he briefly imagined that the discovery of this footage was some kind of practical joke.
Quizzing director Spike Lee and producer Nile Rodgers whether they’d heard of The Harlem Cultural Festival, nobody seemed to recall such an event. But his jaw dropped open when he learned that there was 40 hours of high-quality footage filmed during the festival.
“There’s no way you’re going to tell me that all these artists did these performances back in the day and there’s no documentation of it whatsoever. It goes to show that revisionist history and black erasure – be it mean-spirited or on purpose or by accident – is very real,” he tells STACK.
Putting this story into the proper context was paramount, describing the forgotten footage as an example of black erasure, incredulous as to how the documentation of this incredible historical event could have effectively been buried for 50 years. “The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists – it was incredibly important to me to get that history right,” says Thompson. “Blacks have always been a creative force of our culture. But sometimes those efforts are easily dismissed. I want to make sure that black erasure doesn’t happen during my lifetime anymore, and the film was an opportunity to work towards that cause.”
Nervous at the prospect of taking on the weighty task, sifting through all the archived material and presenting it in a thoughtful manner, Questlove hoped that someone more accustomed to working with such content, such as Ava DuVernay, might take on the project. But when there were no obvious takers, he decided he must do it himself.
“Putting this story into the proper context was paramount.”
“And by nervous, I mean scared!” he laughs. “Partly because I’m a perfectionist, but, what I will say, is that this film has really brought out an awareness and a confidence in me that I never knew I ever had. A lot of times, everything that I do creatively is behind a shield. You know, behind the drum set, behind my dad, behind Black Thought, behind Jimmy [Fallon], behind turntables.”
Ask him which of the performers in the film he would most want to have played with and he says, “Of course the Captain Obvious answer is Stevie Wonder. But I will say that there’s 40 hours’ worth of performance captured – and the audience really only gets to witness maybe ten per cent of it. But, as far as musicianship and intensity, B.B. King’s set was on fire. So, if I were vicariously one of those drummers during the show, my heart is probably closer with B.B. King’s set. I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed making this film a lot.”
Summer of Soul is now showing in Australian cinemas (where possible).