Questlove Discusses His Must-See New Doc, 'Summer Of Soul'

Originally published on July 3, 2021 9:54 am

Updated July 2, 2021 at 1:02 PM ET

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson knows you have probably heard a lot about Woodstock, the legendary summer concert festival of the late 1960s. But a few years back, Questlove, best known as drummer and composer with The Roots, was asked to direct a music documentary, Summer of Soul, about another legendary concert, one you probably haven't heard about.

"In the very beginning, I felt like, oh, well, this is too historical for a first-time driver to be at the wheel, so maybe [the filmmakers] don't want to ... leave it in my hands," Questlove tells Audie Cornish in an interview with All Things Considered (you can listen to the audio above). "But the itching and burning of wanting to see this footage and the goosebumps I got watching it..."

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of free shows at New York's Mount Morris Park that ran six weekends in the summer of 1969. Three hundred thousand people attended, and saw a galaxy of stars that we're all familiar with today, but whom we might not have glimpsed at that moment in their careers.

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There was Motown's Gladys Knight, an ingenue with a tortoiseshell clip pressed into her teased hair. There were singers of The 5th Dimension in fringe vests and bell-bottoms, nervous about how their psychedelic pop would be perceived by this mostly Black audience. A lanky, velvet-suited David Ruffin enjoyed the spotlight away from the Temptations. And a young Stevie Wonder shed his Little Stevie image, tearing across the stage between instruments and ripping through a drum solo — on the verge of several years of hits that would soon define him as an artist.

Black artistry and how it's defined, seen and embraced — those are some of the ideas that Questlove explores in the documentary he made about this moment: Summer Of Soul won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. But, Questlove explains that the film was almost never made. The footage, shot by the late Hal Tulchin, sat in the cameraman's basement for years before he shared it with the filmmakers. They didn't want to just snip together a highlight reel. They wanted to tell a story. So, they approached the prolific Questlove, an author, DJ and composer who had not yet added director to his list of titles.

"I was amazed at the diversity of [the Harlem Cultural Festival]," Questlove says. He found he could easily put himself in the shoes of the artists, especially those who could defy expectations about what a Black pop star could or should be. "This is a concert festival that somehow found space for Moms Mabley and Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Sharrock and Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and Mongo Santamaria, like every type of genre from Africa to Harlem."

The audience, too, defied expectations, which is something Questlove wanted to showcase. The festival was embraced by the New York City mayor at the time; the New York police less so. Black Panther Party members did some of the security. But Questlove says this was no Black Woodstock – the concerts were taking place at a crossroads period for Black America. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down the year before. And the riots and anguish that followed still hung in the air. The artists present at the Harlem Cultural Festival melded music and social justice at the same time.

In making this film, Questlove says he wanted today's artists to learn from the artists of the past, "I want artists to know the lesson that we need to learn is that message and activism, those things matter. Those things matter. We can't lose that."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson knows you have probably heard a lot about that legendary summer concert festival of the late 1960s.

AHMIR THOMPSON: In the beginning, I was like, OK, let me watch Woodstock. And I was like, no, no, no, no. I don't want to be influenced.

CORNISH: But a few years back, Thompson, best known as drummer and composer with The Roots, was asked to direct a music documentary about another legendary concert, one you probably haven't heard about - the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free shows at the city's Mount Morris Park that ran six weekends in the summer of 1969. Three hundred thousand people attended. And they saw a galaxy of stars that, well, we're all familiar with but whom we might not have glimpsed at just this moment in their careers - Motown's Gladys Knight in ingenue with a tortoiseshell clip pressed into her teased hair...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

GLADYS KNIGHT: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, about your plan to make me blue with some other girl you knew before. Between the two of us girls, you know I love you more.

CORNISH: ...The singers of The 5th Dimension in fringe vests and bell-bottoms, nervous about how their psychedelic pop would be perceived by this mostly Black audience...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) ...Will steer the stars. This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, age of Aquarius, Aquarius.

CORNISH: ...A lanky, velvet-suited David Ruffin enjoying the spotlight free from the Temptations...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

DAVID RUFFIN: (Singing) Talkin' about my girl, yeah. I've got so much honey the bees envy me. Yes, darling.

CORNISH: ...Not to mention a young Stevie Wonder shedding his Little Stevie image, tearing across the stage between instruments, ripping through a drum solo and on the verge of several years of hits that would soon define him as an artist.

Black artistry and how it's defined, seen and embraced - those are some of the ideas that preoccupy Questlove Thompson. And the documentary he made about this moment in time is called "Summer Of Soul (...Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." It won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

I spoke to him and some of the producers on the project after a Sundance screening earlier this year. And the first thing they said was that the film almost didn't get made. The footage was tucked away in the basement of the man who shot it, Hal Tulchin. Tulchin passed away in 2017, but not before he shared the archive with the filmmakers, including Joseph Patel.

JOSEPH PATEL: The tape itself is this - in this gorgeous Tiffany Blue case. It's about 15 inches in diameter, about 20 pounds a reel - like 60, 60 to 75 reels, somewhere in there.

CORNISH: But they didn't want to just snip together a highlight reel. They wanted to tell a story. And the producers approached Questlove, an author, DJ and composer who had not yet added director to his list of titles.

THOMPSON: The first thing that I kind of said to myself, my ego wouldn't allow me to think that someone had one-upped me on an event that I should have known about but didn't know about. And so I would say in the very beginning, I felt like, oh, well, this is too historical for a first-time driver to be at the wheel, so maybe you don't want to, you know, leave it in my hands. But the itching and burning of wanting to see this footage and the goosebumps I got watching it...

CORNISH: And Questlove found he could put himself in the shoes of the artists, especially those who could defy expectations about what a Black pop star could or should be.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) He taught me how...

THOMPSON: I was amazed at the diversity of it. Because even now, as an established Grammy Award-winning artist that's been doing this for 25 plus, I have reservations about gigs sometimes. Like, the first thing that I will ask any of my agents, be it a Roots gig or something that I curated or even a DJ gig, I want to know the makeup of what the audience is because it's almost like I don't trust people's mind to be that open. And again, this is a concert festival that somehow found space for Moms Mabley and Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Sharrock and Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and Mongo Santamaria, like every type of genre from Africa to Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you Harlem's very own - the young man who put the soul into the Latin music - Ray Barretto.

CORNISH: And he wanted to show how the audience itself defied expectations. The festival was embraced by the New York City mayor at the time; the New York police less so. Black Panther Party members did some of the security. But Thompson says this was no Black Woodstock.

THOMPSON: You know, I guess what defines a generation is sort of relative. And somehow, we've romanticized everything that happened at Woodstock to define a generation and all those things. But I can't help but wondering had there been, you know, 200,000 people that crashed the gates, that were just tripping the whole time - like, if that would have happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, would that had the same sort of romantic revision of, you know, a moment of a generation that Woodstock had? And the answer, sadly, is no.

CORNISH: And there was something else. The concerts were taking place at a crossroads period for Black America. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down the year before. The riots and anguish that followed? It still hung in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

NINA SIMONE: Are you ready, Black people?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Are you ready?

SIMONE: Are you really...

CORNISH: And the Black Power ethos that would infuse the '70s was taking root.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

SIMONE: ...Voices, the beautiful Black feeling...

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Are you ready?

SIMONE: ...The beautiful Black waves moving in beautiful air. Are you ready Black people?

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Are you ready?

SIMONE: Are you ready?

THOMPSON: One of the key reasons why I felt kind of a sense of purpose for this film was that back in the late '60s, you know, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield weren't, like, billion-dollar industries. They weren't worried about losing their Rolls-Royce or their baller lifestyle because they weren't living that. They were of the people. So if anything, I'm really hoping that this will spark in other artists a new mission.

And I'm not saying that the burden has to fall on us as a people to always say the right thing and to say the most politically correct thing and to always have - you know, no one has to be a straight-A student to that level. Like, I love party and idiot songs and TikTok music just like the next person. But not to the detriment of the message. And so if anything, I want artists to know the lesson that we need to learn is that message and activism, those things matter. Those things matter. We can't lose that.

CORNISH: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is the director of "Summer Of Soul," out tomorrow in theaters and on Hulu. We spoke with him at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, which NPR supported as a media sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) I'm going uptown to Harlem, to let my hair down in Harlem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.