How Questlove Created A Music Doc Masterpiece With ‘Summer of Soul’

Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson
Daniel Drago / Searchlight / The Oriel Company
– Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson

At the heart of “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a groundbreaking new documentary chronicling 1969’s all-but-lost Harlem Cultural Festival, is something this industry knows exceedingly well: incredible live performances. Here, such paragons of soul, groove and flash including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, The Chambers Brothers, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Herbie Mann (with Roy Ayers and Sonny Sharrock), David Ruffin, Mongo Santamaria, Hugh Masekela and Ray Barretto, are resplendent in full technicolor glory performing at Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park before a Black audience of some 300,000 over the course of six consecutive Sundays.

“I just really wanted to make a cool documentary that a 26-year-old Ahmir would have gravitated towards on The Roots’ tour bus when we do our Chicago to Denver run,” says Ahmir Questlove Thompson when asked how, as a first-time film director, he managed to create what many are calling a masterpiece. “That’s like a 20-hour trek. So normally, I’m emptying out every underground independent video store for the Criterion D-cuts and whatnot. So, in my mind, I was just like, ‘Okay, if I was to step on that tour bus and its lobby call at midnight, and we got a 20-hour trek to Denver, what movie do I want to create to watch on the tour bus?’”

Far more than just a time-kill between tour stops, though, “Summer of Soul” weaves a luminous narrative with a dozen interconnected stories rooted in incredible performances. Primary sources some 50 years later ,including Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Charlayne Hunter Gault, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sheila E., help animate and contextualize the performances along with eye-popping archival footage and photography, insightful commentary and newly unearthed history.
If “Summer of Soul” were simply a concert film, much like what followed Woodstock, which was held the same summer, it would be great. Woodstock went on to capture the national zeitgeist with a subsequent documentary that won an Oscar; meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival’s music and legend languished. It’s a cultural crime that despite the original film’s director Hal Tulchin’s best efforts to find financing – even framing it as the “Black Woodstock” – this treasure trove of music and history failed to get the investment or recognition it so rightly deserved.

As the movie’s subtitle accurately says referencing the late-great Gil Scott-Heron, “…the revolution could not be televised”…until now. It’s also likely why Questlove and his producers made the inspired decision to use the performances as a lens by which to examine the deeper, more complex social, political and cultural history belying this highly charged and transformational period and not just make a concert film.


Dawning Of The Age of Aquarius In Harlem: The 5th Dimension perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park, Harlem on June 29, 1969 clad in matching yellow and brown fringed vests. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

None of this explains, though, how a first-time film director, whose only directorial experience was co-directing Common’s corny 2002 video “Come Close,” came to helm “Summer of Soul,” which is now rightfully on the short list for a 2021 Oscar nod if not an outright win.

“When (producers) Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein came to me, my first reaction was, ‘No, that didn’t happen, because I know everything about music and if I don’t know it, no one does,’” Questlove says. He isn’t being hyperbolic. As the Roots’ bandleader for the last 25 years, music director of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” a vaunted DJ, an in-demand producer and arranger, an NYU adjunct professor, a New York Times best-selling author, a podcaster, foodie, entrepreneur and person with encyclopedic knowledge of music and culture, he knows way too much about way too many things.


Polymath Prodigy Baller Status: Ahmir Questlove Thompson at Book signing in New York for his book “Mo’ Meta Blues.” (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Over the course of a free-wheeling hour-and-a- half conversation, Questlove name-checks Prince (of course), Malcolm Gladwell, chef Marcus Samuelsson, the “Heart of Darkness” doc, Rick Rubin as his “accountability partner,” Scorsese’s film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Q-Tip, The Beach Boys, Grand Royale, John Bonham, Maggie Rogers, Denzel Curry, Ralph Abernathy, Smokey Robinson’ gumbo, Public Enemy’s entire catalog,” “The Family Guy,” Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” Nelson George, Jimi Hendrix, Sesame Street, Tony Williams and Mister Rogers.

“I tried to run away from it,” Questlove says of his initial trepidation to direct. “I was just like, ‘Look, guys, can I just be executive producer? I’ll be Ronald McDonald. You find the Ray Kroc, I’ll be the face of the thing.’ They’re like, ‘No, dude.’ I was like, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ And they were like, ‘Look, all you do is tell stories. You do these gargantuan Instagram posts. You write books. You taught at NYU. You have your podcast. You even wrote a book that said all talent’s transferable. So if you can tell gripping and compelling stories in all these other mediums, what makes you think you can’t do that for film?’ I was like, ‘You sure?’ It was like I had just gotten my learner’s permit last week and they wanted me to drive an 18-wheel truck.”

Questlove’s first course of action was immersing himself in 40-hours of concert footage. “For five months, all I did was keep it on constant loop,” he says. “There was nothing else. I kept it on 24-hour loop, even when I was asleep. If anything interesting happened, I wrote it down.” Along the way, Questlove and his crack team of producers, editors and researcher somehow managed to transform a learners permit and semi-trailer into a Bugatti.

No festival or performance happens in a vacuum, and in 1969 a lot was happening. The Harlem Cultural Fest came in the wake of the senseless and devastating assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  a little more than a year earlier. Riots erupted in Harlem as well as in D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Trenton, Louisville and elsewhere. There were other pressure-cooker factors, too: The Veitnam draft , a proliferation of heroin, a rise in poverty as well as the long legacy of inequality and discrimination engendered by systemic racism. At the same time, there was a NYC mayoral race that saw liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay turn up on stage at the festival.

Harlem Cultural Festival

Take Us To The Mountain: A packed-out Mt. Morris Park during the Harlem Cultural Festival held in the summer of 1969, which compared to Woodstock, which was held at the same time was far more organized and peaceful. (Photo: Courtesy NYC Parks Photo Archive)

“The real reason why this thing was put on was basically to keep us from burning up Harlem for a second year in a row,” says Questlove. “We’d already tore Harlem up in 1968 and it was hell. And there was a potential there that it would happen year after year if something didn’t happen.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival significantly received its largest funding that year.

“Welcome to the Harlem Cultural Festival, here in Mt. Morris Park, in the heart of Harlem,” says the festival’s producer, director and prime mover, Tony Lawrence opening the film. He’s a suave former lounge singer originally from St. Kitts who is something of an operator who unfortunately, couldn’t be tracked down for the doc. “And now ladies and gentleman,” he shouts, “the young prophet of soul! Stevie! Wonder!” Cue tens of thousands of fans losing their minds and screaming at the top of their lungs.

Summer of Soul

Poster Children: Some of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s leading lights from the “Summer of Soul” film poster (from clockwise top left): B.B. King, Mavis Staples and Mahlia Jackson, Sly Stone, David Ruffin, Ray Barreto and Nina Simon. (Courtesy Searchlight Films)

Wonder, who is only 19 years old at the time, takes the stage and does a vocal vamp on a more sinuous version of The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” before being escorted to a drum kit which he proceeds to destroy . His head-exploding drum solo is appropriately the soundtrack to the film’s prologue, which lays down its central premise: The world’s changing, radically, especially in the Black community and these changes will have a lasting and profound impact.

Over Stevie’s wild drumming are quick cuts of the fest’s performers spliced with archival images of black panthers, political activists and other cultural icons of the day along with a variety of voices recalling the period. “1969 was a change of era in the black community,” says one. “A wholesale re-evaluation of our history and culture,” says a TV commentator. “The styles were changing,” “Music was changing,” “And revolution was coming together,” say three different voices. “A Black consciousness revolution.” “It was the right time, the right place, we were there.” “We wanted freedom now.” “We were creating a new world.”

“As far as that beginning was concerned, I was just like, “Yo, I’ve got to come up with a cold open that would even surprise me,” says Questlove. “Somewhere in these 40 hours of footage is an awesome five-minute opener that I’ve never seen before that will just grab me by the collar like a bully in eighth grade. As I was asleep and kept this footage on a 24-hour loop, when Stevie Wonder did that drum solo, I was like, ‘Holy, shit. This is the beginning.’ For me, my absolute goosebump moment was watching him do that drum solo because we’d just never seen him in that light before. I was like, ‘This is our beginning.’ Then we built from there.”

It’s an exhilarating opening that sets the stage for the slew of deftly layered narratives contextualized and interconnected that follow. The Harlem segment is overlaid with the Chambers Brothers’ soul rocking jam “Uptown;” The 5th Dimension’s McCoo and Davis discuss the flipped-script racial stereotyping they endured for not being “black enough,” and how Davis losing his wallet in a taxi led to a Grammy and biggest hit of 1969 in “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In;” and a segment on the moon landing, which happened during the Harlem Cultural Festival on July 20, 1969, features never-aired footage of Walter Cronkite throwing to Bill Plant at the festival where attendees ask why we’re spending so much on going to the Moon when there’s so much dire need in this community?

“Ahmir was like, ‘I want this movie to feel like the Bomb Squad produced it,’” says film producer Joseph Patel referencing Public Enemy’s famed production crew. “They created layered rhythms and a lot of samples, a lot of quick cuts, so we wanted to layer the story in here. Josh (Pearson, the film’s editor) understood that immediately, so it informed the way he edited because he knows music and he edited to a certain rhythm. You feel that in the movie. The movie itself feels musical.”

Summer of Soul producers

Producers Action Shot: From left: Robert Fyvolent David Dinerstein, Questlove, Joseph Patel, Dave Sirulnick, Jen Isaacson and Jon Kamen at the “Summer Of Soul” screening & live concert at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem on June 19, 2021. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Both Questlove and Patel call the film’s editor Josh Pearson a “genius.” As a musician who was formerly in 1990s video art-damaged mash-up group Emergency Broadcast Network, you can feel Pearson’s editing prowess throughout with thousands of seamless visual and audio transitions. Worth noting is Pearson’s previous work, including the Oscar-nominated “What Happened, Ms. Simone?”, Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies,” “Made in America” featuring Jay-Z directed by Ron Howard and Morgan Neville’s Keith Richards film “Under the Influence.” His band also had its footage used on U2’s Zooropa Tour.

“This is such a special film and I feel so honored and privileged to have been able to work on it,” Pearson says. “Obviously, a lot of editing work went into it, but early on as we started getting some of the interviews and people’s reactions combined with the footage, it just seemed to all of us on the team like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be great.’”

Pearson points out that despite how little of the 40-hours of footage is used in the two-hour film. “You feel like you’re watching a live concert and in the midst of one of the songs because of the beauty and the energy of the footage and the miraculously good sound quality,” he says, “which was recorded live under a two-inch tape straight out of the board.”

There are far too many genius moments to recount, including: seeing the cultural paradigm shift between Gladys Knight and her spectacular Pips with their tightly drilled Motown choreography and matching suits lead into the psychedelic far-out funk of Sly & The Family Stone; a look at the Latin music melting pot with artists like Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto whose differences Sheila E. dissects down to hand and wrist motions; and Stevie Wonder’s political awakening which Chris Rock puts into perspective over Wonder’s blazing Clavinet solo filtered through a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal.


Groundbreakers: Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson performing “Precious Lord” at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Photo Courtesy Searchlight Films

One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when Jesse Jackson describes Rev. Martin Luther King’s heartbreaking last moments at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. The civil rights icon’s last words before he is murdered are to sax player Ben Branch, who is on stage with Jackson, to be sure to play his favorite Gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord.” That leads into legendary singer Mahalia Jackson’s epic performance of the Gospel classic where she symbolically passes the Gospel torch to the younger Mavis Staples whose singing is similarly transcendent.

The film’s penultimate performance is easily one of its best. “Nina Simone was in a new place in her life where she was done with singing show tunes and Broadway, and she really wanted to do activism,” says Questlove. “Nina Simone’s performance was probably the hardest to break apart because in a 45-minute performance, she never let up. Alone, that performance could’ve been the entire ‘Summer of Soul.’” Simone closes out her set with “Are You Ready,” a powerful and intense poem by Last Poet David Nelson calling for unity and resistance.

The film ends on Sly & The Family Stone’s foot-stomping rendition of “Higher,” with Sly stalking the stage with full-on audience participation screaming “Higher” a capella as the band slowly exits the stage. It’s a fitting ending, with an incendiary live performance, audience participation and an exceedingly positive note for a number of reasons, including the enticing fact that Questlove’s next “jawn,” as he calls his projects, is a Sly Stone documentary.

Sly Family Stone

A Change Has Come: “Sly & The Family Stone” in 1969, the same year they played the Harlem Cultural Festival, represented a sea change from Motown’s suit and ties and tight choreography to letting it all hang loose psychedelic soul. (Clockwise from bottom left) Rosie Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Larry Graham, Freddie Stone, Sly Stone, Gregg Errico, Jerry Martini. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)