Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says the untold story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival found him, and not the other way around. When he started crafting his directorial debut, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” he kept the 40 hours of archival footage playing on loop, 24 hours a day, for five months. “If I got goosebumps when I was watching, it made the cut,” he shares.
On this episode of Variety’s “Doc Dreams,” presented by National Geographic, the documentary filmmaker discusses the passion and love he had for the music and emotion that was wrapped into the creation of his debut outing.
Most of Questlove’s friends, family and colleagues knew he had the ability to make a powerful film that captured the spirit of time, except for Questlove himself.
Like many filmmakers, Questlove began making the documentary prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but then found his crew and cinematic options significantly reduced once the shutdowns occurred. For an artist who has not missed a single episode as the musical leader of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” he acknowledges that if the pandemic had not happened, the final product would have looked very different.
His first cut of the film came in at a staggering three hours and twenty-five minutes. “Something you don’t want to hear as a first-time director, you have to lose 90 minutes. If I could have, it would have went way past the ‘Ben-Hur’ credits.”
“The film is all about emotion,” he adds.
The documentary, which examines the seemingly obscure six-week festival held at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), is bird’s-eye view into a time of iconic music, racial divide and a cultural revolution.
“Summer of Soul” debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival where it received rave reviews. It’s also considered one of the leading contenders for the Academy Awards in the best documentary feature race. Distributed by Searchlight Pictures, the film is now streaming on Hulu.