NEW YORK – Questlove replied in disbelief in disbelief when he was first told about the footage.
A 1969 landmark in Harlem he never heard of? With Stevie Wonder? With Nina Simone? Se Sly and the Family Stone, BB King and the Staples Singers?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I know everything that’s happened musically in that time, and I’ve never heard of it in my life. “Get out of here,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recalled in an interview. “Then they came back and showed me the footage, and I fell.”
This was the beginning of what became “Summer of Soul (když or when the revolution could not be broadcast on television)”, a space-time capsule of a historic but largely forgotten festival. The festival, known as “Black Woodstock”, took place in the same summer as Woodstock – and was only 100 miles away – but received much less attention.
“Summer of Soul”, Questlove’s directorial debut, finally reveals a little-seen landmark musical event. It debuted on Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, where immediate recognition and countless home dance parties for visitors to virtual festivals appeared – the Questlove party expanded with a live streaming after-party DJ set.
As the Roots drummer, bandleader “Tonight”, bandleader, producer of demand and self-proclaimed “musical nerd”, Questlove’s ubiquitous musical presence often bled into film projects. But “Soul Summer” is his first direction – his first “yawn”, as he describes it with Philadelphia slang – even though he never looked it up.
“Wondering if it was on my bingo card with a bucket list?” says Questlove with a smile over Zoom.
“I was thinking in my head of a more seasoned director’s hands, it could change someone’s life,” he says. “I knew I was watching something special.” But I got out of my fear. I often go through the syndrome of fraudsters. Now I realized it was my chance to change someone’s life and tell a story that was almost erased. “
During six Sundays in 1969, more than 300,000 people gathered on Harlem Mountain. Morris Park to celebrate the soul, gospel, funk and, above all, black identity at a key point in African American culture. The festival – “like a rose passing through concrete” that the participant remembers – took place a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Roar. Jesse Jackson is seen from the stage talking passionately, “If we’re more interested in the moon than we are in men, someone better wakes up.”
The concerts were filmed by television veteran Hal Tulchin, but he found that no networks or Hollywood producers were interested in his 40 hours of recording. Before his death in 2017, Tulchin was still trying to find footage at home.
“Literally, if we let it run for a few more months, a lot of those shots would be thrown in the trash,” Questlove says. “Hal Tulchin has been trying to sell these shots for years and years and decades and decades.” No one would take the bait. His wife was like: I know some of his things are in the basement, but I’m going to clean the basement and get rid of it. Who knew you could get Stevie Wonder for such a cheap one, or Sly and the Family Stone? “
The material is really falling. Simone, perhaps for the first time, plays “To Be Young, Giftted and Black.” Sly and the Family Stone, the only act played by Woodstock and Harlem in 1969, plays “I Want to Take You Higher.” Hugh Masekela does “Grassing in the Grass”. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sing an amazing gospel duet.
“The more I watched it, especially in gospel performances, it’s just some of the best, documented and raw gospel performances I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Questlove. “I was like, ‘Yeah, is it so easy to erase our history?’ Is it that easy? Could it just be lost? The only scene, alone, with Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, was almost in the trash. That was the number one thing in my mind: How easy is it to erase history? And why does it always always happen to black people? “
Questlove originally set out to focus purely on music. His first incision was 3 hours and 25 minutes. “Amateur class,” jokes Questlove, whose final cut takes 117 minutes. But as he worked on the film through the Black Lives Matter protests, through the pandemic and reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death, the scope of “Soul Years” continued to expand.
“The purpose of this festival was to occupy people’s minds and give them something they can look forward to in the summer of 1969. To see how it’s happening in real time in 2019, I realized we needed to delve deeper into the role of the artist.” says Questlove. “Over time, I began to see this film in a completely different way.” If the events of 2020 had not happened, this film would not have been the film it is now. There were too many parallels to ignore. “
Follow AP movie author Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP