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Maintaining the integrity of the archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with performances by artists including Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder was paramount in the making of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
For Hulu’s musical film and Black history documentary, the material comes together with new interviews in an edit by Joshua L. Pearson. Of the sound, rerecording mixer Paul Hsu says, “The whole task was really keeping that woven structure very much alive.
“It’s a little bit of a high-wire act where you have to maintain that energy through the entire film,” he adds. “It’s very artful in the sense that there’s a lot of information, there are a lot of interviews, and there’s a lot of music. You have to maintain this continuous thread through the entire film.”
The late TV vet Hal Tulchin produced and directed the original footage of the festival, which was then stored in his basement for half a century. As the project got underway, music mixer Jimmy Douglass restored an estimated 40 hours of the 2-inch videotape “with a light touch … the recordings were very good,” says Hsu, who created the film’s 5.1 surround sound mix so that “you can feel the music even when we’re not onstage.”
Hsu describes his approach to the mix as “all dialogue, all music,” which he admits sounds obvious, “but it’s a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. The words [in the interviews] really matter. You have to feel what they’re saying at all times, but the music is also most important. So how do you keep those two things alive at all times? That’s definitely the thing that Ahmir and I talked about right from the beginning. How do you keep those two things at a constant all the time and still have it sound beautiful and be enjoyable for the audience?”
Hsu says Thompson is an “incredible” music historian and the right helmer for the film. “The importance of each one of the musicians in those acts is so crystal clear and understood by [Thompson],” says Hsu. “There are so few people who could have made this film in the way that he did. In a way, my job feels really somehow to just carry that forward, to just help that blossom and make you feel as though you really are there.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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