Questlove lets the music — and the memories — speak in ‘Summer of Soul’
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Summer of Soul may be a concert documentary, but no one captures its heart better than an attendee who was just 5 years old at the time of the long-lost Harlem Cultural Festival series, in the summer of 1969.
Now in his 50s, Musa Jackson is the first person we see in this deeply moving historical document from The Roots drummer and first-time filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. In the space of a few seconds, an intense play of emotions ripples across Jackson’s face — captured in a tight close-up — as video of the crowd fires up off screen.
Jackson is speechless. Transfixed. Immediately, we pick up on a sense of wonderment as the ghost of a smile creeps in at the edges of his lips. But then his mouth twists into more of a faint grimace, communicating disbelief and pain. As viewers will soon learn, this treasure trove of live performances from luminaries like Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder — a veritable gold mine for music preservationists and fans alike — has been buried for almost 50 years.
“We interviewed him with no context whatsoever. And then at the end of the interview, we showed him the footage,” Thompson said during a recent video chat with Mashable. “He had no reference for any of those things [because of how old he was at the time] and he completely nailed it. He remembered more than he thought he did.”
Summer of Soul is all the more compelling for letting the music simply speak for itself during vast stretches of its two-hour runtime. There’s a visceral pleasure in seeing artists like Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone in their prime, firing up a crowd and performing the material that cemented their status as music legends.
The unseen nature of the material makes it that much more special, but it also speaks to the documentary’s true purpose. Thompson frequently cuts in during musical numbers with thematically relevant historical context that, taken as a whole, paints the picture of an America and a Black community in 1969 that was still recovering from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil unrest that followed. In Thompson’s telling, that year represented a noteworthy inflection point for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
City leaders, and Mayor John Lindsay in particular, were supportive of the festival, which was conceived by a local promoter and performer in Harlem named Tony Lawrence. But the film makes it clear that support from the city was likely motivated on some level by self-interest. Darryl Lewis, a festival attendee, spells it out bluntly at one point: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burnin’ up the city in ’69.”
For Lewis and all the other people who were there, though, the Harlem Cultural Festival carried meaning that stood apart from any of the outside forces that may have shaped it. As an event, it reflected an evolving sense of Blackness as a cultural identity. Al Sharpton points out in one interview that the festival was “where the Negro died and Black was born.”
Summer of Soul supports that point in virtually every frame. But the lost nature of the film’s archival footage is inescapably anchored to American racism. This entire, beautiful expression of love and community could easily have been forgotten if not for Hal Tulchin, the man who carefully documented the festival across 40 hours of footage plus piles of paperwork and other assorted ephemera. He was never able to sell his pitch for a commercial release of what he dubbed “Black Woodstock.”
But Tulchin hung on to every shred of material he captured. That act of preservation was instrumental in drawing a self-professed music nerd like Thompson to the idea of crafting a documentary. Though he was also skeptical when producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent first brought to him the opportunity to dig into Tulchin’s tapes. Even with his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, this Harlem Cultural Festival was a blank spot.
Thompson recalls seeing live footage of Sly during a long-ago trip to Japan that he couldn’t place at the time. But his memory of that moment — triggered at the sight of the festival’s colorful stage backdrop — clicked after he sat down with Tulchin’s material. This is where the clip had come from.
Thompson was also instantly struck by the quality of the recording in those decades-old reels. Where The Roots, now a 10-person group, use upwards of 70 soundboard inputs to mic up any given performance, Tulchin’s records noted that Stevie’s set employed just 15 mics. Gladys Knight and the Pips, one of the only performers during the festival to feature background vocals, relegated all three of those singers to just a single mic.
Yet every shred of concert footage you see in Summer of Soul features the original audio, with almost no adjustments made on the backend to clean up flaws in the recording or to smooth out an uneven mix. “So I’m trying to figure out how the sound was that pristine,” Thompson said. “What you’re hearing is…their rough mix [and] it kicked everyone’s ass. It was absolutely flawless.”
“What you’re hearing is their rough mix and it kicked everyone’s ass. It was absolutely flawless.”
That wealth of high-quality material was ultimately instrumental to the process that led to Summer of Soul‘s creation. Thompson actually took inspiration here from an encounter he had long ago with Prince, one that he’s shared online before. As the story goes, Prince once fired Thompson from a DJ gig and, instead, piped Pixar’s Finding Nemo into the club on a loop.
The incident eventually became a running joke between the two, with Thompson needling Prince for always carting around copies of that particular movie. And one day Prince told him: “That’s my aquarium. Finding Nemo‘s the coolest aquarium ever.”
So digging into that 40 hours of festival footage, Thompson built himself an “aquarium” of his own. He distilled all that material — which also included B-roll and views of the crowd — down into a 24-hour rough cut of the whole thing. And then, he just…lived with it. For five months.
“I didn’t want it to feel like work, so I just kept [the 24-hour cut] on constantly, and if something just happened to grab my eye or something, I took a note of it,” Thompson said. As the months wound on and those notes piled up, the documentary’s basic foundation took shape, resulting in a three-and-a-half hour cut. “Then the new problem was, what 90 minutes are we gonna chop away?”
As impressive as Summer of Soul is for giving the wealth of material room to speak for itself, there’s so much more that Thompson wanted to include. Stevie played some of his big hits at the time, like “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once in My Life.” The Chambers Brothers did a 10-minute-plus rendition of their hit “Time Has Come Today.” With so many valuable treasures to choose from, there were hard choices to make.
That’s where Musa Jackson and the documentary’s long lineup of interviews with other festival attendees — not to mention reflections from some of the artists themselves — becomes important. Because while the music and its preservation has loads of value, Thompson had more he wanted to say in Summer of Soul.
It’s a tragedy, and sadly a product of deep-seated racism in the U.S., that this beautiful expression of love and culture was completely hidden from public view for half a century. That sense of something lost is expressed implicitly again and again all throughout Summer of Soul, but there’s a reason two clips from Jackson’s interview serve as bookends for the film.
Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson shares the mic with Mavis Staples in one of the most powerful moments from the Hulu documentary “Summer of Soul,” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
“For the first month or so [with the 24-hour loop] I just didn’t know how to approach it,” Thompson said. But then his girlfriend reminded him he’d written a book on this: Follow your own advice and treat it like a DJ gig; what would you do if this were a DJ gig?
“When I do DJ gigs, I work backwards. I always start with: What’s my last 15 minutes going to be? Because I want to know what the audience is going to walk away feeling in those last 15 minutes,” Thompson said. In his original idea, what is now the movie’s stirring midpoint, featuring gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sharing a mic as they belt out a powerful, roof-raising rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” was going to be the ending.
“But it felt a little too kumbaya,” Thompson said. “Like a Hollywood ending.”
“I didn’t want to leave you with that feeling. I still wanted to answer the question on, why was it so easy for this film to just be neglected? That’s not to say that it was purposely held back for 50 years. But just the fact that it was this shrug…I feel that’s even more painful than if someone just started a tape burning mission.”
“I still wanted to answer the question on why was it so easy for this film to just be neglected?”
And then Musa Jackson sat down for an interview.
He was the first to respond when Thompson put the call out online that he was looking to interview people who had attended the festival. There were doubts about what Jackson could actually bring to the project, being that he was 5 years old at the time. But finding older attendees presented its own challenges, so Jackson came in as the production’s first interview.
“I’m glad we went with him, because it was almost a thing where [we said to ourselves], we’ll wait for someone who’s older and can give us insight,” Thompson said. That interview didn’t just deliver Summer of Soul‘s introduction; it also gave Thompson his conceptual “last 15 minutes” — and it’s one of the film’s most deeply moving moments.
As a jubilant Sly performance of “I Want To Take You Higher” that sees the crowd chanting the song’s key refrain while the band exits the stage — “High-er! High-er!” — we cut back to Jackson. He’s nodding slowly, with a still-small but now more confident smile on his face. In the light of the monitor we can’t see, the monitor that’s beaming memories into Jackson from 50 years ago, tears glisten in his eyes — and, for viewers possessing even a shred of empathy, ours as well.
The story Thompson so effortlessly weaves together in Summer of Soul is bigger than one music festival. If we read Jackson’s mixed, almost bittersweet response in the film’s opening frames as a wordless dissertation on its purpose, our final moments with him are the inevitable conclusion to that argument.
The Harlem Cultural Festival may have been conceived with cynical intent and subsequently buried by the racist undercurrents in U.S. society. But as attendees like Jackson demonstrate, through anecdotes and raw emotion, the reality of the event had real value and impact. Thompson’s film, then, is an act of reclamation, and a gift to a community that was led to doubt that they’d ever witnessed this powerful moment in history.
“I knew I wasn’t crazy, brother,” Jackson says to Thompson in those final moments as the tears spill out. “I knew I was not crazy. But now I know I’m not. And this is just confirmation. And not only that,” he adds, pausing briefly before making one, final point: “How beautiful it was.”
Summer of Soul is now streaming on Hulu.
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