Questlove on his Summer of Soul documentary and the major musician he wishes he could've included
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's directorial debut features — and contextualizes — previously unseen footage from 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival. The concert series boasted acts such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and a duet between Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, yet never got its due for showcasing the paradigm shift happening in Black culture at the time.
In Summer of Soul (out now in select theaters and on Hulu), performers and attendees join modern day stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris Rock to help Questlove correct the historical record and prove why the musical celebration was so important and so healing to so many.
The Roots drummer tells EW the 2021 Sundance Film Festival award winner felt like "an extension of my podcast and my books and everything else I do as far as telling stories. So, if anything, I think that this film was really therapeutic and literally escorted me to a new path that I never knew I had."
Read more below about how the film came to Questlove, and how he figured out which acts to keep in it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film came together in a unique way. Could you speak a little to that?
AHMIR "QUESTLOVE'" THOMPSON: Sure. So, the basic backstory is that this festival was thrown back [during] the entire summer of 1969. There was a question mark up in the air as far as the perception of civil unrest. Everyone that was crucial for the Civil Rights movement was somehow, one by one, getting eradicated. And so, to not have a repeat of what happened in the summer of 1968, there was a festival thrown in Harlem by two gentlemen, Tony Wise and Hal Tolson as a way to keep people's minds occupied because music is healing. The lineup was so stellar that they decided to raise money to have this whole experience filmed for potential release on television or a movie. And this was subsequently happening at the same time [as] Woodstock about a hundred miles away.
They sort of go through this crazy process, robbing Peter to pay Paul to guarantee these A-list superstars be in the lineup. And pretty much with the exception of Aretha Franklin, who had to cancel days before, everyone was aboard and performed. Unfortunately, when it came time to just take the footage and do something with it, people just flat out rejected it. Even as these stars became household names like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and whatnot. And what wound up happening was this footage just sat uncared for inside of [a] basement for 50 years. My current producers heard about this, digitized some of it, and came to me. Month by month, as I relived [the footage] in real time, it was almost like, okay, we have to tell this story. Without being super obvious that we're literally living parallel lines for 50 years. You can't tell if you're in 1969, 1970 or 2000 to 2020.
How'd you figure out how to balance the concert footage with the stories you wanted to tell?
I was trying to find my voice without necessarily inserting myself. I was acutely aware of making any rookie mistakes that a first timer would make in this process. Just naturally anything that I do, be it books, food, curating shows, has me organizing things like a DJ. There's a natural rhythm that I have with things. The DJ in me was sort of thinking in mixtape mode.
As we're living in a paradigm shift, you're watching one of the most important paradigm shifts of post Civil Rights in America happen. So for me, I was curious about where we were as far as our political activity. There's all these things that I wanted to know as a music head, as a working class musician, as an observer in history. There was so much to unpack. My first cut was at least three hours and 20 minutes. It was the size of Woodstock, but it was way too much information. The comedy aspect I had to wade back a little bit because that was a lot of unpacking to do. But in the end I think we found the perfect rhythm. How to entertain people, how to get the maximum music, how to put them in the audience, and how to educate them at the same time without beating them over the head.
Who are some performers you're excited for people to see?
Instantly, I knew that Stevie's drum solo was supposed to be starting the film. Because, it was shocking and not many people knew Stevie Wonder as a drummer. But then on the other side of it, I initially had that portion of Mavis and Mahalia Jackson as my closer. The hardest act to dissect was actually Nina Simone. Nina Simone is one of the rare artists on this bill in which we have to give her three. I wanted to give her five songs, but three was just enough. That show that she did was the beginning of her discovering her militant message powers.
What I wanted to do was really let people know that music was the last bastion of hope as far as us keeping our sanity. Because, really to experience life generational trauma to that level and the results shouldn't have been what they were, but yet, and still there was music there to really soothe and calm us down. So, I wanted people to walk away knowing that when they're watching Sonny Sharrock lose his mind on stage and do that crazy guitar solo, that he was expressing a righteous anger and not just like playing a bunch of ugly notes over this really beautiful jazz background. He was trying to prove a point. And the same thing for gospel hollering and all those things. So, the whole idea of it being that catharsis and release. I felt that was extremely important for people to get and understand and have a newfound respect for it. And I wanted to include Sonny in there only because... There's a lot of backstories I could not include. But, in addition to Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix actually asked to be at that festival.
Sly used that festival as a rehearsal for Woodstock a week later. After they did that performance they went to Woodstock. That was like their sound check. And Hendrix wanted to do the same thing. But of course the organizers were like "Jimi Hendrix? We don't know if you'll come across that well." And so, subsequently when this is happening, Jimi Hendrix at nighttime is doing all these bars and clubs in Harlem. He wanted to return to his Black roots too by doing more bluesy stuff. He'd just broken up The Experience after Electric Ladyland came out a year before. I really wish they would have included him. I think it would have been a game changer for him. It would have been a game changer [in general], but it was just interesting to see all walks of life on that stage.
In the audience as well. I was really struck by how the film documents what Black beauty was like in New York in the 1960s.
Yeah the point camera was so important to me. Watching the audience really engage themselves. And the thing was, they were just so open. Now, I don't know. Even now as an established artist, 25 years into his career, I would have slight trepidation on "I don't know if I should try this or try that." But just to see people so open and accepting. In one fell swoop, you're watching Mongo Santamaría, and then the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and then B.B. King, and you're open to all those ideas. That's what I really want people to take away from it: You can be open to new ideas.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
A version of this story appears in the July issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.