Legendary musician and music scholar Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is bringing his musical expertise to the movie business, making his directorial debut with “Summer of Soul … (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m very excited. This has been a long time coming and there’s been so many emotions, through these last two and a half years from this being an idea to seeing it come to fruition, there’s no feeling like it in the world,” Thompson tells Variety ahead of the doc’s premiere. “Having been familiar with making records or writing books or developing plays or that sort of thing, it’s really good to see the incubation period now out in the world for the people to have it.”
Catching up with Thompson on his commute to 30 Rock to film “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” with his Roots bandmates, the first-time director shares how he brought his signature Philadelphia style to the project. The film is referred to as “A Questlove Jawn” — “That was a hard decision to make, [thinking] ‘Should I leave my imprint on there?’’ he explains. “But, I have to give a nod and a wink to my hometown.”
It’s a personal touch because the documentary, which will open the festival on Thursday night, is a personal one. The film follows the Harlem Cultural Festival and features rare, unseen footage featuring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and B.B King from the six-week concert series at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in 1969.
Known for his near-encyclopedic musical knowledge, Thompson was chosen by producers to bring this bit of buried history into the light. But that didn’t mean he felt ready for it. When he was first offered the gig in 2018, Thompson says he had to overcome some major imposter syndrome.
“When it was presented to me, one I didn’t believe it in the beginning. Because my ego wouldn’t even let me fathom that you know the all-knowing music snob Questlove didn’t know about something as mammoth as this festival happening,” he laughs. “And then it went from that to, ‘Wait a minute, why am I chosen one to tell this story?’ This is more than just entertainment; this is history. Why are you trusting a first-time driver behind the wheel?”
“I tried hard [to get out of it]. I was like, ‘You need someone real like an Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee to take this because this is too much important in history for you to rely on a novice,” he recalls. “I’m the only person in history that was given a winning lottery ticket, and was like, ‘Give it to them give it to them.’ But [the producers] told me that this was my destiny and I had to accept this mission. It was like Mission Impossible, and I had to deal with it. And I’m very glad I did so.”
The other reason Thompson said he had to sign on to the project, was that the sheer existence of this footage made him question “Is it this easy to almost erase Black history?”
“This was during the same time period as Woodstock. And what was weird to me was that Woodstock has been held as the standard of the ’60s generation, he continues. “It’s the standard for which all things are judged — Jimi Hendrix’s legend, Sly and the Family Stone’s legend, Joni Mitchell. So many people have had their careers based in the legend of what is Woodstock and I was like, ‘Well, this was weeks before Woodstock.”
The film’s debut also marks a sweet return to the Sundance Film Festival for executive producers Jon Kamen and Dave Sirulnick after premiering “What Happened, Miss Simone” at the fest in 2014.
“This particular film is serendipitous because when we made ‘What Happened, Miss Simone,’ we were also the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival,” Kamen says. “The irony of that story is that there’s a little three-minute clip that showed Nina performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. I remember when we were making [that doc] and seeing footage of that legendary concert and her incredible performance — I asked my team, ‘Where’s the rest of the footage of that concert?’”
“We knew there was a treasure trove somewhere where a filmmaker had filmed all the concerts of the Harlem Cultural Festival,” he continues. “Lo and behold, producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent approached us and as it turns out, Robert had been working for 10 years on getting the rights to the footage of that concert and had connected with the estate of the family that could help.”
Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Tulchin died in 2017 and Thompson says it was serendipity that the footage wasn’t lost.
“We were maybe six weeks away from not having any of this footage at all,” Thompson says. “A lot of his archives, memorabilia and all those things were just kind of sitting in his basement. Had we waited maybe a month and a half more, there’s a likelihood or a chance that this would have inadvertently gotten tossed out in the trash.”
Tulchin’s beautifully shot and well-preserved footage was a treasure trove of audience reaction shots and well-lit stage performances for the filmmaker and producers as they assembled the film. Thompson estimates that they only used about 35 percent of the tape, with the director having to whittle down a four-hour first cut of the film to its final 117-minute version.
“It was a very ambitious project,” Sirulnick adds. “We had to look at two-inch videotape open-reel material that was state of the art in 1969. We had to digitize them. So, we spent a lot of time making sure the material was going to hold up. We photographed the original reels and documented it because you don’t see those reels, and it’s a part of the story.”
The film was initially set to be completed by the 50th anniversary of the festival in 2019 or early 2020, but after early delays, the production was then impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with some interviews having to be reorganized and the post-production plans shuffling.
“When the pandemic hit and all of a sudden we’re not together, that becomes a challenge,” Sirulnick says. “The fact that we had deep relationships and trust, allowed us to move through the challenges and hurdles of producing during the COVID year in a way that that would have been even more challenging if we didn’t work together before. We were doing interviews at the beginning of March, but we were editing remotely. [Editor Josh Pearson] set up an edit room in his house.”
But the quarantine period had a larger impact on the finished film, as the filmmaker’s perspective on the message the story could convey changed, in light of this summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests and widespread calls for racial equality.
“I was set to curate this like I do a DJ set or a festival, grabbing the most compelling 14-15 performances and figuring out how I can put it in order,” Thompson explains. “But suddenly this morphed into a whole other movie that we initially didn’t plan and that’s only because the things that were happening in ‘69 are also happening 50 years later in 2019-2020. It felt like this movie was writing itself. It wasn’t lost on us that this very same circumstances that were happening in ‘69, they caused this concert to happen, are happening right now, as we were editing it. So, it became less about just a concert performance and more about how far we come or how far we haven’t come.”
Sirulnick and Kamen agree, explaining that they approach all of their films with this very intention.
“As filmmakers, we like to work very closely with our directors and producers, and as a collaborating team, we like to say, ‘Let’s find that lens that allows viewers at the moment that they’re living in, to see the relevance of this in their life now,’” Sirulnick explains. “This is an event that took place during the summer of 1969. That’s 52 years ago. So, what is the relevance? When you see the film, you’ll see that what we were able to create was this weave of what’s happening off-stage in the Black community in Harlem, in New York and the country, merged very cleverly with what’s happening on stage.”
Kamen adds: “There was never a moment when we didn’t know that this film would be important, not just for its phenomenal cultural performance, we knew there was such an important story to be told about the community about race relations and the civil rights movement of 1967, 1968 and 1969.”
Referencing a line from Knight’s interview for the film, Thompson adds, “This [festival] wasn’t about us just performing music; it was about the progress of our people because 1969 was a landmark year for the movement.”
“It was the dividing line between a generation that thought of themselves as ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’ and a generation that thought themselves as ‘Black;’ a generation that was used to only men in suits, giving a well-subdued polite performance, as opposed to a generation, a younger generation seeing a group dress up in their street clothes, intersectional and intermixed like Sly and the Family Stone. That seemed totally foreign to them at the time,” he continues. “A difference between kind of Martin Luther King civil rights movement and the Black Panther civil rights movement, so a lot was happening in 1969. And, the evidence is there for you to see. It was like putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle.”
The filmmakers put the finishing touches on the project in December, a little more than a month before the Sundance debut. So now, Thompson – who has finally accepted filmmaking as his destiny and already has his next directorial effort lined up – can focus on crafting the set list of the live-streamed after party he’ll be DJing to celebrate the film’s premiere.
“I’m still trying to figure out what my theme is going to be — do I keep it all in 1969 or do I do something different?,” Thompson says. “But there’s a there’s a live performance of Stevie Wonder 1969 doing, ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ that’s like earth-shattering, so I’ll probably open with that.”
“Summer of Soul” is co-produced by Vulcan Productions. Concordia Studio, Play/Action Pictures and David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, and Joseph Patel serve as producers, with Beth Hubbard as executive producer.