Questlove scores another debut: his first documentary, Summer of Soul at the Sundance Film Festival.
Philadelphia’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has scored many firsts for himself and the band he co-founded with Black Thought, The Roots. They were the first hip hop ensemble to lead the music for a late-night television show. He’s written books on food and culinary tastes when not busy branding his own fried chicken, popcorn spices and kitchen utensils. This brings us to his directorial debut with Summer of Soul, or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised. Which opened as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 28.
During one of our many latter-day interviews from 2018, Questlove talked about getting hold of long-buried, unused footage from what was once, legendarily known as Black Woodstock, for documentary purposes. Black Woodstock was the Harlem Cultural Festival at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in 1969 featuring Nina Simone, the Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, B.B King, Mahalia Jackson and more. Talking to Questlove, though, always is an education in what the man has planned, usually too much stuff at one time. All of it getting done, however, on time. In Herculean form.
Jon Kamen and Dave Sirulnick, the executive producers of “What Happened, Miss Simone” wanted Quest to re-configure and re-contextualize this pristine footage from the Harlem jam that occurred mere weeks before New York state’s Woodstock festival. Festival producer and director Hal Tulchin filmed most of the six-week festival in 1969, 40 hours’ worth. But left the footage hidden in his basement when attempts to present the filmed project came to naught back-in-the-day. And called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios.
Tulchin passed away in 2017. After the footage was found, deals were made. And transfers from old technology to new were crafted. A 50th anniversary of the festival’s film was planned for 2020. An obviously tumultuous year what with the roadblocks of a pandemic’s quarantines, and the emotional, political and social struggle of all things Black Lives Matters (a struggle very much at the heart of 1969’s Harlem fest), and all matters of Black freedom and empowerment. A dam has burst in 1969, and with this festival, a call to action is heard. Beyond a political and cultural subtext, Black Power is at the radical forefront of Questlove’s “jawn.”
And with that, Summer of Soul gives each performance – from Stevie Wonder performing, “I Was Made to Love Her,” to the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” to Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ duet on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” to Nina Simone singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – deeper meaning and heft.
The film is not yet purchased by any studio – that’s the purpose of the Sundance Film Festival. To find buyers or premiere releases. And yet, Summer of Soul is a goldmine, and with its eventual drop, Questlove will have another, deeply meaningful smash on his hands.
At Tuesday’s Sundance Film Festival finale, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s feature documentary Summer of Soul – When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised, was awarded both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary. For a directorial debut, Summer of Soul – When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised, its celebration of African American music and culture and promotion of Black pride and unity crushed!
Of the prizes, Questlove shared a written note: “It has always been a dream of mine to direct films and telling this story has truly been an amazing experience. I am overwhelmed and honored by the reception the film is receiving and want to give special thanks to Sundance, and my production partners: Radical Media, Vulcan Productions, Concordia, Play/Action Pictures and LarryBilly Productions.”