Questlove talks about ‘Summer of Soul’

In the summer of 1968, American cities were gripped by protests and riots as racial tensions boiled over following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The following summer, Harlem hosted a series of concerts featuring an extraordinary lineup of Black musicians and comedians. Among them were Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Moms Mabley. Stretched over six Sundays, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a burst of joy, a reprieve for a community still healing. Like Woodstock, which happened the same summer just a hundred miles away, the Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed, but the tapes sat in a basement for 50 years, nearly forgotten.

Enter Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the beloved drummer, DJ, and co-founder of The Roots. A self-described “music snob” and collector of cultural artifacts, Questlove was mind blown when he got his hands on the footage in 2019. This discovery led to his directorial debut. Questlove and his team have woven together a brilliant film of performances interspersed with contextual interviews. 

The summer after Black Lives Matter protests and riots gripped America, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now available to stream on Hulu. The film is a testament to the power of gathering together under the sun to experience music and laughter. It also makes you wonder about how many incredible Black cultural artifacts have been lost, or nearly lost, to history. 

I first saw Summer of Soul in early May at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It was the film’s first public screening. Afterwards, Questlove did a Zoom Q & A, his face projected on the giant inflatable screen in Stephens Lake Park. Below are excerpts from that Q & A, in which he talks about the origins, challenges, and inspirations for the film.

How did you come to the story?

Initially when I met my producers, Robert and David, I thought they were trying to troll me by talking about this mythical concert that happened in Harlem 50 years ago. I think a person of my stature would have known about it, because I collect these sorts of artifacts. I really thought they were just trying to con their way into The Tonight Show. I was like, ‘Okay, they could have just asked for tickets. They didn’t have to lie about a concert.’ But they wanted to come back the next week and I kind of dismissed it. I said, ‘Okay if you guys have this concert, I’ll look at the footage.’ And they came back with the footage and I was mind blown.

At that point, besides a Common video, I’d never directed anything in my life. It was a hard decision to make because I didn’t have any experience in directing. But I put a team together of people that I trusted to help me tell the story and it took two and a half years to do it. There was over 46 hours of footage, of which the hardest decision was what to leave out of the film. The initial cut was three and a half hours, so cutting it down to two hours was hard enough. 

In your book you talk about visualizing what success looks like. What did you imagine that would be for this film?

I will admit, probably the biggest life lesson that I’ve had in making this film was getting over impostor syndrome. What I will say is that, especially during the pandemic, which was crucial because the world stopped at the same time around March, April, May, those were three very crucial interview months that we had planned and everything sort of got cast aside. For a second I thought the film was over. 

It’s weird I actually had to take my advice from my own book, Creative Quest, which is basically to sit in silence and let ideas come to you. I think that moment, especially like those first five or six weeks between March, April, May, we just sat there and figured there’s a way to pivot and finish this film. We were just starting to edit and we had a whole grip of interviews to do. I definitely used my own advice on how to get through the last quarter of this film. I felt like it was destiny and it was meant to be. Actually I’m very grateful, not to the detriment of losing six hundred thousand people, millions of people across the world, but for me, that sort of sitting still, being in an isolated place, being silent, that really helped me focus and finish this film. Had it not been for the pandemic, it would have been a whole nother film, I guarantee you. 

As far as my initial cut, it was three hours and twenty-five minutes. I initially thought that that was a good time because the original Woodstock was that way. At the end of the day, this film taught me a good lesson in editing. Coming from a world in which I made these like mammoth sized albums; the average Roots album used to have somewhere between 16 to 22 songs on them. This is a whole nother world for me where reducing, taking out, you know, “less is more” is probably a very apt lesson here. So there was a lot I had to take out. 

Each act had at least a 45-minute set, so even choosing the right song for each act was hard. Not to mention, there was a whole stand up comedy element I had to leave out. There was so much I had to leave on the floor just to get the perfect balance between performances and interviews. 

Obviously, we’re in a moment of tremendous loss, but the film carries such potent joy. How conscious of that were you when you were making the film?

The gold standard in my opinion as far as really good soul documentaries was the Wattstax film from 1973, there is also a film called Soul to Soul, which was similar to Wattstax.. And then some of the contemporary films that I had in mind like the Soul Power film, which was sort of like the companion piece to Muhammad Ali’s When We Were Kings. Not to mention, my own, the film Michel Gondry shot, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. So I’ll say around the time where we really, really got serious I had to live with the footage for at least five months. 

That footage was sort of like an aquarium in my house, constantly on my television, laptop and iPhone. And if something hit me I just sort of made a mark and added a note to it. I’ll say that Sydney Pollack’s direction of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace film was kind of on my mind as far as a unique approach. I don’t know if you guys were able to see that documentary or that performance of her landmark 1972 gospel album, which is basically straight performance with no context whatsoever. The film is really magical, but I knew the backstory of that concert. I knew that James Cleveland was upset that the Rolling Stones were sitting in the deacons pew, I knew that he was upset that cameramen were blocking the aisles and whatnot. I knew there was an issue with his parking space, small tidbits that I knew as far as the backstory. 

Part of me also wanted to know whether or not you all would be distracted or not if we intercut information in the entertainment. I think as we got closer to 2020, there was no denying that we were actually living in the circumstances that caused the concert to happen in the first place. So first, there was the temptation to show modern footage of protests happening and sort of like where America is in 2020, to say that it wasn’t different 50 years later. 

There was a lot of temptation, but at the end of the day, I think that I wanted a balance of just really good entertainment mixed with interviews. And I felt like the audience was probably the most important co-star of the film. So making sure that the audience was included and actually getting people that were at the festival. And then the music nerd in me also just wanted to know things, like how often Gladys Knight and The Pips rehearsed those dance steps or if Stevie Wonder had a cheese spread backstage? The film basically just wrote itself. I just felt like it was important to have a little bit of backstory about the festival. A little bit about the creative process, but also about the social circumstances and the political circumstances and the songs. So it was like five things I was trying to balance in a two-hour scope. 

I love watching concert films, but maybe my favorite part is watching the audience and there was never enough until Summer of Soul. What was it like for you seeing all of that audience footage?

We call that camera number four. Camera number four is absolutely my favorite thing; watching the audience, they were the stars. One of the things in finding people that were there was that it was kind of risky to find eyewitnesses because basically you’re searching for people now between the ages of like 55 and 80, and people that were closer to the 80, 85 years old side of the spectrum, their memory might be a little spotty. It took Jesse Jackson a few minutes to sort of recall. Mavis Staples on the other hand remembered a lot. There were some people that you know were there, but they really couldn’t recall things. And then there were people who were there as children who were just like five or six years old that had very small memories. 

Our very first interview with Musa, the very first question I asked him at the top of the film was the very first thing we shot. It was, “What were your memories of Harlem 1969?” Even before we showed him the footage he said, “Full disclosure, I was only five years old, but I vaguely remember seeing the 5th Dimension and they had these…” He described their outfits, he described everything that was on the footage. So in the first ten minutes it was just so amazing to watch him watch his first memory. For him, that’s his first memory in life. He’s 56 now, but to be five years old and that was your first memory and to get it validated, because he said as time went by he was sort of like, “Did that happen? I barely remember it.” For us to bring it to him, that to me was just the most exhilarating.

The one Easter egg that I had to leave out of the film involved the two women that were best friends that wanted to see Sly and the Family Stone. They thought that they successfully got away with sneaking out of the house and they pretty much did. They said, “I’m going to my cousin’s house. I’m going to Long Island.” Everything was perfect until one of them got home. She got in bed and then the next thing you know, her parents are watching the eleven o’clock news and they just so happened to do a report live from Mount Morris Park in New York City, and who is right there in the front row losing her mind at the Sly and Family Stone? She got busted. She got put on punishment for the next month, so that was the one story I wanted to make the Easter egg, the hidden thing in the film, but I couldn’t do so.

There are so many jaw-dropping performance moments (Mavis Staples). Was there one that you first saw that surprised you? 

The way that I sort of craft and curate things, be it making records, building shows for The Roots or anybody I’ve worked with, Jay-Z, Eminem, whoever…I kind of think in terms of how I learned in high school, especially breaking down Shakespeare, where you have your establishing, your rising, your climax, your falling action, and then your ending. As I said, I kept those 46 hours of performances on a constant loop. It’s different camera angles so I’ll say it was probably closer to 18 to 23 hours of performances. 

The first thing that just gobsmacked me, of course, was Stevie Wonder’s drum solo. I knew that the first five minutes of the film had to be something that’s surprising, that no one saw coming, and I don’t think anyone ever thinks of Stevie Wonder, even though he’s played drums on his albums, people don’t think Stevie Wonder, drummer. So I knew instantly that scene was shocking enough to be the energetic spark that we needed. 

Because this was my first film, I gave full permission for my staff and producers to sort of be rigorously honest with me as far as letting me know if I was pulling an amateur hour move. In my first draft I thought that Mavis and Mahalia Jackson were going to be the ending, like where the Nina Simone scene is. I thought that the Mavis and Mahalia summit meeting was kind of a cool kumbaya moment. Now they told me, “Yes, it’s the perfect Hollywood ending. But if you want to be a paradigm shifter and really establish yourself, this shouldn’t be your ending.” So the next thing I knew, we put that sort of smack dab in the middle and made it the climax. 

I actually felt that Nina Simone’s performance was just as majestic as all the performances. Nina Simone’s was the hardest to break up, because her entire 45 minutes was just on fire. If I really had my way, it would’ve been five or six songs. If we do a super cut for a Criterion Collection or an anniversary or whatever, we’ll definitely include more songs.

This is a passion project for me. As I said, this footage sat in the basement for 50 years. Had it been an extra month or so, it might have been discarded. We were very fortunate to have the cards fall in the perfect place. All I can say is, come July 2, if there’s someone in your life that really loves music, all generations, it doesn’t have to just be your grandparents or your parents or anyone that was of age in the 60s or 70s, I think this is universal. Turn up the volume and just really absorb it and enjoy it.

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