Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, already enjoys a large number of hyphenates including musician, producer, songwriter, DJ, author and music journalist. Today, the 50-year-old drummer and joint frontman of hip hop band The Roots, gets to add a new title to his resume – film director. With Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Questlove has already scored both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Presenting a powerful and transporting part-documentary, part-music film, part-historical record, Summer Of Soul centres on an epic six weekend long summer event, celebrating Black history, culture and fashion. Held in Harlem, New York, during the summer of 1969 – just 100 miles from where Woodstock received massive global coverage and is remembered to this day – The Harlem Cultural Festival was quickly forgotten by historians, with archival footage gathering dust in a basement for almost 50 years.
Today, this original concert footage – featuring riveting performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more – receives a fresh audience with Summer Of Soul shining a light on the importance of history, standing as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. Here, Questlove takes us on a very curious adventure into how a first-time director presented the world with a forgotten slice of Black culture.
When did you first become aware of this footage?
“I first, unknowingly, saw some footage back in 1997 and – 20 years later – it was presented to me by producers Robert Flyovent and David Dinerstein, who told me that they had this footage and wanted me to direct the film. Even then, I didn’t believe it was real.”
Why didn’t you believe it was real?
“Well, unbeknownst to me, I was watching two minutes of Sly & The Family Stone’s performance. But, because it was what I knew to be camera two, which was in the nosebleed section, I didn’t know I was watching The Harlem Cultural Festival. I just assumed that all festivals in the ‘60s were from Europe because America really didn’t have that culture yet.”
How have you shifted from artist to storyteller during the filmmaking process?
“Without being all touchy-feely with it, more than anything, this project has helped me develop as a human being. Sometimes, artists can be really neurotic, living inside our heads. Most people don’t really experience me one on one – I have the safety of Instagram or a book. Like, there’s always a barrier that gets you from getting in there, and that’s how I thought I liked it. But now, I will say that the amount of confidence that I got as a human being from this was a game-changer. I’m not saying that I’m gonna go through life without fear and do Will Smith’s cannon jump or something like that but, on a technical side, I also learned the power of editing. Most Roots albums are these gargantuan, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink things, like, ‘This is what I’m bringing to the table’. So, with Summer Of Soul, my first draft was three hours and 35 minutes, where I really learned that less is more and less is impactful. Like, the three-hour-and-35-minute version of the film probably wouldn’t have hit you in the gut as much as a very succinct two hours.”
Summer Of Soul features a real blend of gospel, soul, free jazz and salsa music. Is there any genre you missed?
“The one genre that I truly left out was comedy, because it would’ve taken me some time to really make sense of how the humour of the day worked for that audience. For example, oftentimes, I’m a guy that’s always doing, like, a litmus test with people as far as testing music out on them. I’m always making playlists for people. I’m DJing for people. You think you’re just dancing to music, but I’m really testing people. So, there’s no time in which I’m presenting music, in which I’m not conducting an experiment. You just think that I’m DJing, or you just think that I happen to put the song on, but I’m really looking for reactions to see what people respond to. But this one thing, I always noticed when I played intense soul music for younger people, is that they tend to find James Brown yelling to be humorous. That’s funny to them. Because we live in a meme GIF culture. So, those three seconds of something out of context can seem funny to people, like with some of the gospel stuff. And there was a lot of, I guess what we can call, primal musical expression, or primitive exotic expression, where people are acting wild. And I wanted people to know that that was more of a therapeutic thing than anything. So, if it’s a gospel singer that’s catching the spirit, I wanted people to know that this just isn’t Black people acting wild and crazy. This was a therapeutic thing. And for a lot of us, gospel music was the channel because we didn’t know about dysfunctional families and therapy and life coaches that we have now.”
You introduce the film, although mainly you let the story speak for itself?
“I was really careful not to insert myself in the story because I wanted this to stand on its own.”
How did your experience as a DJ inform this film?
“It’s so weird. Like, we really started the editing process at the top of the year in which we got to devote half the time to your survival and your family’s survival, and also this movie. So, there is a point where I was wondering, ‘Could I take the same approach that I take to DJing or putting a show together with this movie?’ And that’s exactly what I did. For starters, for five months, I just kept it on 24-hour loop no matter where I was in the house or in the world. And, if anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. And I felt like if they released 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation. I tend to work backwards. Whenever I’m given a project, the first thing that I think about is what is the last 10 minutes of the show or the set that makes the person who goes home think, like, ‘Man, that was incredible.’”
Why do you work backwards?
“Because usually the last 10 minutes of a show or a presentation is your chance to do the Men In Black-style flashy thing to your audience. And I’ve had disastrous Roots shows where I knew, ‘Okay, if I make these the last two songs and do these certain things, they’ll forget about what happened in the middle of the show.’ And that happens a lot. So, that’s a trick I play. And of course, I wanted to make my entry in the film world. Like, my version of inserting myself in this film without me seeing it kind of in a TikTok way.”
Showing Stevie Wonder as a young drummer was an obvious wink to your own life as a drummer?
“It tells me I’m the director of this film – without telling you I’m the director – by using Stevie Wonder’s drum solo. I figured that was the best way for me to crash-land into your lives as a director without it being about me. And we have not seen Stevie Wonder in this light of a drummer so I thought that was the perfect beginning. And that’s pretty much how I crafted the show. I searched for my ending. I knew what my beginning was, and then I worked backwards.”
How did you observe Black culture changing in reviewing all the footage?
“Probably the most telling moment of that festival that goes over people’s heads; when I’m looking at David Ruffin’s performance, it’s the middle of August and he’s wearing a wool tuxedo and a coat. And I’m like, ‘Why?’ And it hit me that, back then, you had to be professional even to the detriment of your own comfort. I suddenly realised like, ‘Oh, so Black people have to code switch all the time.’ It’s not just in the office space, but even in entertainment. I related to that because I’m a guy that has to adjust his show. If we’re touring with Beck, we got to do a show a certain way. If we’re doing Wu-Tang Clan, certain way. If it’s System Of A Down, certain way. Then next week is Erykah Badu. So, no one has more stress of, you know, ‘Call my agent, okay? What part of town are we in? What’s the audience look like? Da-da-da-da.’ I have to code switch shows. All my shows aren’t transferrable to each audience. I have to adjust it for every place we go.”
You’ve talked a lot about erasure of Black histories in the way that this footage was just disregarded, but it seems that the erasure was apparent back in 1969. Woodstock got all the press, and the moon landing was huge. What are the keys to pushing back on similar erasure today and beyond?
“Well, this is a step forward. This is the first time that I’m really seeing conversations that were never had before, especially post-pandemic. We weren’t talking about mental health for Black people. And we weren’t speaking of Black erasure. Of course, years before, we coded it as, like, ultra-appropriation, which was a really politically correct way of saying that, ‘Yo, man, why are you always biting my shit?’ Or whatever. Like, it was always draped in slang so that you couldn’t see the heart or the sincerity of what the problem was. As for me, I didn’t come into this wanting to be a director or any of those things. But I do believe that creativity is transferrable, so this is not my last rodeo with telling our stories. If anything, I’m more obsessed now than ever to make sure that history’s correct, so that we don’t forget who this artist is, or that event is.”
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is in selected cinemas from September 2. Click here to read our review.