Questlove on making Summer of Soul 'in the middle of a revolution'
While Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has been lauded for his directorial debut Summer of Soul, and how the documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring previously unreleased performance footage of acts like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, is able to draw parallels to modern social issues, the Roots drummer did not originally plan for the project to be so revolutionary.
"In the beginning, I was like, 'Well, I guess I'm just going to curate the perfect concert series, just like all those other great soul documentaries in the past," says Questlove, in conversation with EW at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival (see the video above). Citing concert films covering soul artists from the 1970s, like Wattstax and Soul to Soul, he adds "I thought, 'Okay, as long as I can match the canon of those great films I'm okay.'"
However, while working on the documentary during the first half of 2020, the musician-turned-filmmaker looked up and noticed "we were editing and filming this thing in the middle of a revolution."
"We will look back at his time period as the new American Revolution, or the Art Revolution," says Questlove, trying to think of what the title will be for our current, tumultuous time period. "We're living in it now, so we can't really get a perspective of it because the script's being written right now. But during March, April, May, especially June of 2020, it wasn't lost on us that the very exact things that we were showing in 1969 were happening 50 years later verbatim."
That breakthrough eased the first-time director's worries about "How am I going to connect with millennials and Gen Z on this movie? Like, how am I gonna emotionally impact them?" Ultimately, he says, "this film wrote itself."
As for the accolades he's received so far, winning big at both Sundance and the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards this year, Questlove did not expect those either. "Of all of the proverbial Thelma and Louise cliff jumps, this one was the hardest to do," he jokes. "And, you know, I entered it with fear. Like, 'What if other directors, like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay, laugh at me? What if this fails?" It was a type of worry he never encountered while making music.
Having made it to the finish line, with the film being released onto Hulu in July, Questlove concludes "this process was more than an education on how to make my first film or how to be a better director... Everything about this film taught me how to be a better human being."
Watch our full interview with Questlove above. Summer of Soul is now streaming on Hulu.
A portion of this conversation is also included in the season premiere of EW's The Awardist podcast, available below and wherever you listen to podcasts. Our new season covers the road to the 2022 Oscars with interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, and more Oscar hopefuls.