'Summer of Soul': Questlove on His Documentary Homage to "Black Woodstock"

Summer on Soul and inset of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Courtesy of Sundance Institute: Michael Baca; Mass Distraction Media;

Sly Stone at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Says Questlove (inset), "The circumstances that caused the concert to happen back in 1969 were starting to happen in 2020."

When the celebrated musician discovered footage from the little-known Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, he thought he’d just create a standard concert doc — then COVID-19 forced him to delve deeper for the film, premiering at Sundance.

During the same summer as Woodstock in 1969, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and more played a series of free concerts in Harlem intended to be a celebration of Black pride. Called the Harlem Cultural Festival and attended by more than 300,000 people, the shows were largely forgotten, and the recordings languished in a basement for decades. More than 50 years later, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson tells the story of the 1969 event known colloquially as the "Black Woodstock" in a new film heading to Sundance entitled Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). On a lunch break from his day job providing the music for The Tonight Show with The Roots, the musical polymath spoke with THR about how his directorial debut evolved from a straight concert film to a story of how a crucial moment in Black history was nearly erased.

How did you learn that this footage existed and how did you get your hands on it?

I guess we can start with my ego. I was like, wait a minute. I'm supposed to be the all-knowing wiseass of this sort of thing. How come I didn't know about this? When [producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent] showed it to me, once I realized the historical significance of what this concert represented, initially I felt, well, this is way too valuable and historical to fall into the hands of an unproven amateur whose only film directing expertise was a Common video back in 2002. Why me? Why not get a real director like Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay? In the beginning, I tried to Matrix-bullet duck this film because what if I dropped the ball? I was very much an impostor-syndrome person. I didn't think I was worthy of such a thing.

What shape was the footage in?

It took about four months to clean, to make sure it didn't crumble inside of modern machines — 47 reels. There wasn't a budget for lights. They only had one sponsor, and that was Maxwell House. So they had to make sure that the stage faced west so that they could take advantage of the sun. It was recorded with barely 60 microphones for full-blown orchestras. We had one sound-glitch problem: Freddie Stone's guitar amp. What you're listening to is very close to what it was in 1969.

How did the pandemic and events of 2020 shape the project?

The first week of March, we had this elaborate lineup set. From around March 13 till mid-April, I was just sulking and under the sheets, thinking this movie's going to go to hell. It's so weird, this film actually became better. It started out as, OK, let me just curate the best performances I can. Suddenly, COVID forced me to also tell the story of the concert. Mainly because the story was happening again in real time. The circumstances that caused the concert to happen back in 1969 were starting to happen in 2020. One thing I always wanted to uncover is, a lot of people are often amused at how we catch the spirit, so to speak, in terms of our excitement in music, like when you see James Brown screaming or you see Jimi Hendrix do a mammoth guitar solo. As I was watching this, I realized that there was something deeper under the surface. I was like, OK, we've got to start finding people [who were in the audience].

What's the distribution plan?

Right now, we're being courted by the entire world. This is a very new world for me. But after the Sundance screening, we'll narrow it down to what's going to feel like home for us.

Will you direct more?

I'm signed up to my next four projects. My next two projects are official. Both of these are in the music space. But we will announce that in due time.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.