Rolling Stone

Inside Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’

The Roots’ drummer brought the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to the big screen after 50 years.


Questlove was skeptical. In early 2019, the Roots’ drummer was approached by two Hollywood producers who claimed to have 45 hours of footage from a long-forgotten festival in Harlem that had included performanc­es by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, and other stars. Questlove, who’s renowned for his knowledge of music history, had never heard of the event. He had, however, become used to fellow crate-digging obsessives trying to one-up him with dubious facts.

“That’s really what I thought it was,” the drummer, a.k.a. Ahmir Thompson, recalls of his first meeting with producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “I thought these two were trying to gas me up for some Jimmy Fallon tickets.”

When he watched the performanc­es, he realized that not only was the footage real, but that the event it documented — the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — was a profoundly important cultural moment. He ended up signing on to direct Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), one of 2021’s buzziest documentar­ies, to tell that story.

The concerts, which began in 1967, in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, were drawing tens of thousands of fans by the summer of 1969, and served as a crucial space during a tumultuous time in black America. “The festival was a way to offset the pain we all felt after MLK,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at the festival, told Rolling Stone in 2019. “The artists tried to express the tensions of the time, a fierce pain and a fierce joy.”

Sensing the importance of what was happening, a local television director named Hal Tulchin filmed the concerts with a profession­al crew, but the footage would end up sitting in his basement for nearly 50 years. “Not only was the footage forgotten, it was overlooked,” says Sasha Tulchin, Hal’s daughter. “It wasn’t wanted, and then it was forgotten.”

Fyvolent, a veteran entertainm­ent lawyer and producer, first learned about the Harlem Cultural Festival through a friend in 2006. For years afterward, he was told by others in the industry that making a film about the festival would never happen. “They were like, ‘This is going to be too expensive, given the artists involved,’ ” says Fyvolvent. “I heard that a lot.”

After signing on as director, Questlove immersed himself in the source material by playing Tulchin’s 45 hours of footage on repeat. “The numberone question I had was, ‘Who would throw this away?’ ” he says.

The very fact that these shows had been all but erased from the historical record became an urgent through line in the film. The Summer of Soul team demonstrat­es this, i n part, by showing festival footage to their interview subjects and filming their reactions. Interspers­ed with the stunning performanc­es are emotional shots of people like Harlem native Musa Jackson, who attended the festival as a five-year-old.

At first, Questlove envisioned a fairly convention­al cinema vérité concert-doc approach (à la Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace), building up to a feel-good finale with Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples leading the crowd through the civil-rights-era anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

Last year’s uprising against racism made him dig deeper. “‘That’s how Hollywood would end the film,’ ” Questlove recalls producer Joseph Patel telling him. “It would let people off the hook — like, ‘See, everything’s fine.’ But that’s not what’s happening now. We’re not having a ‘Kumbaya’ moment. We’re protesting.”

The film’s climax now belongs to Nina Simone, who performs “Young, Gifted and Black” and offers a recitation from the Last Poets’ David Nelson: “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings. ... Are you ready to build black things?”

The performanc­es in the film present a vibrant, varied vision of lateSixtie­s black musicality, from the New Age pop of the 5th Dimension to the jazz-rock experiment­ation of Sonny Sharrock to the drone-rock stylings of the Chambers Brothers. “We’ve been told that classic Vietnam-era iconic rock songs were by white groups, but they’re not,” says Patel.

For Questlove, it was an angering experience to realize that if it had been given proper resources at the time, a film on the Harlem Cultural Festival could have had the same wide cultural influence as 1970’s Woodstock. “This could’ve been such an adrenaline boost to black music culture,” he says, “and it wasn’t allowed.”

He points to Prince’s memoir, which includes a detailed remembranc­e of going to see Woodstock in 1970. “His dad could have took him to see this film,” Questlove adds. “Who knows what could have happened?”

 ??  ?? SOUL POWER Clockwise from left: Sly Stone performing as part of the Harlem Cultural Festival in July 1969; the 5th Dimension onstage for their
performanc­e at the festival earlier that summer; director Questlove
SOUL POWER Clockwise from left: Sly Stone performing as part of the Harlem Cultural Festival in July 1969; the 5th Dimension onstage for their performanc­e at the festival earlier that summer; director Questlove
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