In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary, part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now.
SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.
Q&A with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Q: How you first learned about this footage?
Questlove: I inadvertently saw the footage back when the Roots first went to Tokyo in 1997, and my translator for that tour, who knew that I was a soul fan, took me to a place called the Soul Train Cafe. Unbeknownst to me, I was watching two minutes of Sly and the Family Stone’s performance but because it was what I knew to be Camera 2, which was like the bird’s-eye view, nosebleed section, I didn’t know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. I just assumed that all festivals in the ’60s were in Europe because America really didn’t have that culture yet, only to find out exactly 20 years later when David Dinerstein and [producer] Robert Fyvolent told me that they had this footage and they wanted me to direct the film. So first, seeing it without knowing it in ’97, and then it was presented to me in 2017. And even then I didn’t believe it was real.
Q: In making this film, at what point in the process did you feel the greatest shift within yourself as an artist and storyteller?
Questlove: Without being all touchy-feely with it, this project more than anything has helped me develop as a human being.
For all you journalists out there, you know that sometimes the arts can be really neurotic living inside our heads, and you know, it’s weird that even though I wrote the Creative Coursebook — there was one point where I caught myself going back through chapters 5 through 8 — mainly dealing with how creativity is transferable. I will not hesitate to admit that of all the things I have done creatively, this is the one that I was really, really nervous about — partly because I’m a perfectionist.
What I will say is that this film has really brought out an awareness and a confidence in me that I never knew that I ever had. A lot of the times, everything that I do creatively is behind a shield — a drum set, my bed, Jimmy, turntables. With the exception of teaching at NYU, you guts have never experienced me one on one. I have the safety of Instagram, or a book — there’s always a barrier that gets you from getting in there, and that’s how I thought I liked it.
I will say that the amount of confidence that I got as a human being, this was a game changer for me. I’m not saying that I’m going through life without fear, and do Will Smith’s cannon jump or something like that. But on the technical side of the thing, I also learned — despite this long-assed answer that I’m giving you — I learned the power of editing. Most Roots albums are these gargantuan, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink — this is what I’m bringing to the table.
My first draft was like 3 hours and 35 minutes and this is where I really learned that less is more, less is impactful. A 3-hour and 35-minute version of the film probably wouldn’t have hit you in the gut more than a very succinct two hours.
Q: Why did you choose to focus so much of the film on gospel music and the fate of this band in the background if not the foreground of some of these performers?
Questlove: As far as I’m concerned, there was a perfect balance of soul music, free jazz, salsa music and more. The one genre that I truly left out was comedy, because it would have taken me a good 20 minutes for me to really make sense of how the humor of the day worked for that audience, like why they were “killing” [them]. However, for me, I see gospel and free jazz as one and the same thing. I’m a guy that’s always doing litmus tests with people as far as testing music out on them. I’m always making playlists for people; I’m DJ-ing for people. You think like you’re just dancing to music, but I’m really testing people. So there’s no time in which I’m presenting music that I am not conducting an experiment. You just think that I’m DJ-ing, or that I happen to put the song on, but I’m really looking for reactions to see what people respond to.
There’s one thing I always noticed when I played soul music, really intense soul music, for younger people. They tend to find James Brown yelling humorous things [gives a Brown-type yell]. That’s funny to them. Because we live in a meme culture, those three seconds of something out of context can seem funny to people.
There is a lot of, I guess, what we can call primal, musical expression, or primitive exotic expression — in layman’s terms, like people acting wild, and I wanted people to know that that was more of a therapeutic thing than anything. So if it’s a gospel singer that’s capturing the spirit or it’s Sonny Sharrock doing one of those atonal, destructive, violent growls I’ve ever heard on a guitar. Which is weird, because they rejected Jimi Hendrix one year. He’s the only one that asked to play here and they said no. But somehow Sonny Sharrock got in on it.
I wanted people to know that this isn’t just black people acting wild and crazy, that this was a therapeutic thing. And for a lot of us, gospel music was the channel. Because [then] we didn’t know about “dysfunctional families” and therapy and life coaches that we have now.
Q: Did you have to fight to get the Questlove Jawn credit approved?
Questlove: I had to register that with the DG [Directors Guild] and they approved it. Actually, that was my production partner Joseph Patel. It was his suggestion. I was really trying not to insert myself in the film in the very beginning, when I was showing drafts to people. A lot of the complaints I got was like, “Well, wait, you’re not in this. We need to hear your voice.” So I grudgingly put my voice in the very beginning of the film, asking the first question.
And that candid moment that I have with Musa Jackson at the end: we yelled “cut” but I didn’t realize that they kept the tape rolling, so that was the actual real conversation that we were having. When I was telling Musa how that was such a game-changer, ice-breaking moment where we realized that not only since the movie but we got to hand him his history back to him. We were just having a conversation and the cameras happened to be running so we kept it in there. But I was really careful not to insert myself in the story because I wanted this to stand on its own. I also know that — or maybe I’m just in my head — that I imagined there was a jury of people just waiting on the sidelines. At the very last minute, I will let A Questlove Jawn go through, and now I’ve got to wait a second [and see].
Q: Which of the performers in the film would you most want to play with?
Questlove: Of course the capped obvious answer is Stevie Wonder. But you know, there’s 40 hours’ worth of performance captured, and you guys really only got to witness maybe 10 to 15 percent of it. But as far as musicianship and intensity, B.B. King’s set was on fire. So if I was vicariously one of those drummers during the set, I would have probably really enjoyed… My art was closer to B.B. King’s set as far as the musicianship and whatnot. Yeah, I enjoyed his set a lot.
Q: As a DJ, you’re someone who tells stories via music. Are there parallels between using those muscles mixing music and the discipline in which you approach this wealth of footage, assembling it in a way so that it tells a story and has a narrative balance?
Questlove: Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell the story. I remember back in school when we were learning about the story arc — establishing, rising action, climax, falling action and ending. I couldn’t quite see it in the way that my teachers back in school wanted me to see storylines. Again, I actually had to refer to the Creative text. It’s so weird. I was out of my head for that one second. I could also blame it also on surviving the pandemic, because we really started the editing process at the top of the year, in which we got to devote half the time to your survival and your family’s survival, and oh, this movie.
I will say that there was a point where I was wondering, could I take the same approach that I take to DJ-ing, or putting a show together, with this movie? And that’s exactly what I did. So for starters, for five months I just kept it on a 24-hour loop, no matter where I was: in the house or in the world. If anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. I felt like if they released 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation.
I tend to work backwards. Whenever I’m given a project, the first thing I think about is what is the last 10 minutes of this show or this set that makes the person that goes home think, “Man! That was incredible!” Because usually the last 10 minutes of a show or presentation is your chance to MenInBlack flashy-thing [zap] the audience. I’ve had disastrous Roots shows where I knew, okay if I make these the last few songs or do these certain things, they’ll forget what happened in the middle of the show. And that happens a lot. So that’s a trick I play.
Of course I wanted to make this my entry in the film world. My version of inserting myself in this film without me seeing it — in a TikTok way: tell me you’re the director of this film without telling me you’re a director — was Stevie Wonder’s drum solo. I figured that was the best way for me to crash-land into your lives as a director without really it being about me. We have not seen Stevie Wonder in this light of a drummer, so I thought that was the perfect beginning. And that’s pretty much how I crafted the show.
I searched for my ending, I knew what my beginning was, and then I worked backwards. So I edited and paced this film backwards as opposed to the other way.
Q: In the film, Sly and the Family Stone is described as “transformative cool,” and later, there’s talk about the power of freedom music. In 1969. Which artists or music genres do you see continuing that tradition of transformative cool and freedom music.
Questlove: You know, it’s weird. When GregTate said that Sly was transformative cool he actually dropped a mighty seed in my head. So subsequently while doing this film, I’m also working on my next book. I’m not such a product, guys, but that said, that’s how I work. It’s like I’m using the Prince manual: he already had “Around the World in a Day” ready right when “Purple Rain” was out. So right now, my mind is on October to March of next year and I’m working on promoting what I did last year. But when he said transformative cool and I really wanted to investigate.
Oftentimes you hear about “counterculture” and you think of hippies or white people and whatnot. But I wanted to investigate the black side of things. I saw an article by April Walker, and she’s describing a black woman that comes on the train. She is trying to describe what cool is. For her, the greatest weapon that this black woman had — this beautiful black woman — and [April] noticed that four key people on this train were ogling her. From April’s point of view, she said that the more that this woman ignored the Gaze, the more she became cool, because “cool” is more about what you leave out instead of what you bring in.
I am now working on the Sly film. I’m just realizing that Sly’s role in the counterculture process in the Bay Area really starts in 1962. All those hippies that will become of age as teenagers and young people when they’re 13, 14, 15–they’re listening to Sly as a disk jockey. His radio show was really different back then; he was really, like, unhinged — talking about “the Man” and going against “the system” — stuff you weren’t supposed to talk about in 1963-64. His version of cool was more about not being of the system. Being cool was what you leave out, not what you bring in. And that’s what I’m trying to process and learn right now.
Q: How much work did it take to make the audio work as well as it did in the final cut of the film?
Questlove: There’s two million dollar questions of this film that are still unanswered.
One: As hard as I tried, I could not get any direct connection to Tony Lawrence. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, I don’t know where he lived. I know nothing of his legacy. The only paper trail I have of him are other people that we found.
The other thing was, how could that audio be so pristine? The audio that you hear in the movie — this is not to discredit our wonderful sound team especially Jimmy Douglass, who is the only engint him the stuff, he knows what to do, and he sends it back to me, and I have no complaints.
But I’ll be honest with you: we had to do maybe two percent adjustment on the audio. The audio that you hear with the music is the dry rough mix, the sound board, like the reference mix. It sounded perfect, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how 12 microphones were utilized in so powerful a way.
Especially with the Stevie Wonder set: three of those microphones are on his drum set that he only uses once, and the other three are on his other drummer, so six microphones for two sets of drums. And then the other six: Stevie’s vocal, one mike for the guitar and the bass combined, and the rest are on the orchestra. I’m trying to figure out for the life of me, why does this sound so crisp and pristine?
It’s to the point where I’m almost tempted to strip down the Roots ourselves. I called my production manager, telling him like, “Yo, they only used 12 to 15 microphones on this whole production and it sounds perfect. How many do we use?” And with a straight face he was like, “Oh, you guys use 103 mikes.” One hundred and three outlets. So I’m trying to figure out if the Roots as a band can even survive with just 15 microphones.
Q: You’ve talked a lot about erasure of black histories to the way this footage was so disregarded. But it seems that the erasure was apparent back in 1969. Woodstock got all the press.What are the keys to pushing back on similar erasure today and beyond?
Questlove: Well, this is a step forward. This is the first time that I’m really seeing conversations that were never had before, especially post-pandemic. We weren’t talking about mental health for black people, and we really weren’t speaking of black erasure.
Previously, years before, we coded it as cultural appropriation, which is really like a politically correct way of saying that. In the ’80s, we would say like, “Yo man, why you always buying my shit” or whatever — it was always draped in slang so that you couldn’t see the heart or the sincerity of what the problem was. And be it TikTok content or be it a festival, I know this: this isn’t the only story out there. Probably the most shocking thing that I’ve learned in the last month — in the last three to four weeks, I’ve gotten DMs from professors at university letting me know that [such and such] shot concert footage for 20 hours for something that they did over in New York and then there was a [dadada] festival.
This isn’t the only footage that’s just lying around [unused]. There’s about six to seven others, so perhaps this film can be an entry, a sort of sea change for these stories to finally get out. But really for us to acknowledge that yes, even something as minuscule as content on social media, or a giant, one of the first-ever black festivals is important to our history.
The conversation that’s being had now normally is the process that we talk about it for three months and then we forget about it. So that will remain to be seen. But I know as for me, I didn’t come into this, want to be a director, any of those things. I do believe, again, creativity is transferable, so this is not my last rodeo with telling our stories. If anything I am more obsessed now than ever to make sure that history is correct so that we don’t forget who this artist is or that event is.
Q: Do you think something like the Harlem Cultural Festival could be or would be put together today?
Questlove: Yeah. Right now festivals are all the rage. I can say that the Roots Picnic is in the vein of the Harlem Cultural Festival. In the D&V area, the Broccoli Festival, that’s probably the belle of the ball right now,. The Broccoli Festival in DC is very similar to that. So we’re starting to see regional and local festivals on this level happen now. In the last five years, there is another festival that we do in Alabama.
I do believe that America is catching up with festival culture. We moved to Europe, in the UK, and we lived there from ’93 to about ’97. The prime reason why the Roots had to pull a Hendrix and move to Europe basically was because over in Europe, there were over 700 festivals to choose from. We figured, as a band living in a country in which being a band was like a rare thing at the time — we were like one of seven groups with a record deal.
Right now, with major record deals like Megos, and the Roots, as far as non-solo acts — even groups. I’m not going to even talk about bands, but just people collaborating — that’s a rare thing. So we had to move to Europe for four years because we knew that festival culture was a thing in Europe. In moving back to the United States, the first thing we said was, “If we have to show the world what we learned, what is that thing?” So that’s why we wanted to do the Roots Picnic, to let people in our town know “This is how it is over there.” So now festivals are a thing.
Q: What format was the festival recorded on? Can you describe the storage environment where the film was actually stored? And were you ultimately surprised that the film had not decayed over that time?
Questlove: It was really forward-thinking. Normally in 1969, you’re going to document something. Chances are you are going to use 16 millimeter [film]. It was Hal Tulchin’s idea to film this on video because it was for television. So the quality looks like that of a soap opera — that sort of videotape, which was brand new at the time. Of course, you know, in the ’80s, the minicam became the norm. But back then, it was 2-inch reels. but these reels were so heavy. The reels could hold about an hour worth of footage and I’ll say that one of those canisters had to have been about 17 pounds. So even when we show like, that scene at the very end where we had to show all the tapes piled onto each other, that was a damn workout. That was pulling those boxes back and forth and you had to be very careful.
The basement environment that Hal Tulchin kept tapes was pretty steady. He had it in a dry room in his basement. But I think at the time, in 2018, there were only five machines in the United States that were still working and, I believe, only seven people who even had the expertise or the know-how on how to treat the film. It was a five-month process, so the five-month process that I’m watching the video transfer of this movie, because Hal probably spent a good nine years trying to sell this thing. I think he gave up around 1977, 1978, Maybe there was one go-round at a possible 20th anniversary or whatever. So they had made copies of it on VHS sometime in the early ’80s.
But during the time that we sent this out to be [serviced]: you’ve got to bake the film, moisten the film a little bit so it doesn’t snap, And they had to, practically with every frame, lightly brush so that none of the film would be distorted. That was a five-month process. Everything but one reel was damn near perfect. That was a miracle.
The Staples Singers were the only act to perform twice.Their performance reel — coupled with the rain, the quality was a little weird. But for the greater good, we still had to include it.
Q: The interviews, the big reveals, especially the Fifth Dimension. Can you talk about your reactions to their reactions and how that emotionally shaped the film going forward?
Questlove: I’ll say that the emotional component of the film was something that I wasn’t preparing for and really didn’t know it was going to happen. It wasn’t like the Barbara Walters moment where you know she’s going to ask that question just like a carrot on a stick and you know, “I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry” — that sort of thing. But only in conversation, if they touch on something, I might investigate it.
The emotional trigger moment, for the Billy Davis-Marilyn McCoo portion, was the fact that I noticed that — I couldn’t quite put my hand on it, but my memory of all the Fifth Dimension performances I saw were composed and steady and very posh and sophisticated. This performance of theirs at the Harlem Cultural Festival was closer to that of a gospel revival. With the exception of one of their songs on their solo records is “Like Your Love” I had never heard Billy Davis, Jr. use this raspy gospel baritone — like that James Browin-ish “sock it to me” — that sort of thing. So that was humorous.
I said, “Billy, I never heard you use your gospel register before.” They opened the door and [said] “We were comfortable and excited to be there. Like it wasn’t the pressure of we’re on the Ed Sullivan Show, or we’re on the Jack Paar Tonight Show.”
And I realized then that I had a moment-to-moment as they’re describing this. Personally, I related to it because I realized, “Ohh, So black people have to code switch all the time.” Like it’s not just in the office space but even in entertainment — I related to that. I’m a guy that has to adjust his show if we’re performing — if we’re touring with Beck, we have to do a show a certain way. If we’re doing Wu Tang Clan, certain way. If it’s System of A Down, a certain way. Then next week is Erykah Badu. So no one has more stress up front of “Okay, call my agent” or “What part of town are we in?” “What’s the audience look like?”
I have to code switch shows — all my shows aren’t transferable to each audience. I have to adjust it for every place we go to. I noticed that, and that was their way of telling me that they, too, had to go through that pressure.
Probably the most telling moment of that festival that goes over people’s heads was when I’m looking at David Ruffin’s performance, it’s the middle of August and he’s wearing a wool tuxedo and a coat. And I’m like,”Why?” And it hit me that back then, you had to be professional even if it’s to the detriment of your own comfort.
Meanwhile, the most revolutionary performance to that audience? Nothing will beat watching camera 4 of the Sly and the Family Stone performance when all the kids are losing their minds. It would be like if I were to take my nieces and nephews or kids today. If I was at a Megos concert and I was a 50 year old, I’m like, aww, they’re not Wu Tang Clan. But they’re alright.” And watching kids go crazy. That’s what adults were doing at Sly and the Family Stone. They had never seen a black act not wear a tuxedo. They were wearing their regular clothes. Not to mention the intersectional and all that other stuff with the group that they had never seen before.
Also with [audience member] Musa Jackson. He was five years old at the time. I was a little [skeptical] — what five-year-old was going to give me insight of the emotional [depth] of being there when he’s five years old? The thing that won us over was that he was like, “This is my first memory ever.” But he wasn’t sure he had it.; So we purposely didn’t show him any footage, we took all the photos down; he saw none of this stuff for references. He just came in to a dry room, we just said, “Tell us everything you know,” and he spoke. It was like, [wow] — he’s saying it exactly, he remembers! So then, once we showed him the footage, suddenly the tears started welling because for him as a 57-year-old, he didn’t know if he remembered it, he didn’t know if anyone believed him.
So I didn’t realize there was a heavy emotional component. We allowed people to give commentary, and I’m so glad we made that decision, instead of not doing that.
In Theaters and on Hulu July 2.
Here’s the trailer of the film.