With ‘Summer of Soul,’ Questlove unearths Black history [SUNDANCE STUDIO]

Back in the summer of 1969, as hundreds of thousands of music fans flocked to the town of Bethel in upstate New York for Woodstock, another music festival was drawing an equally large crowd in Harlem, just 100 miles south. But while Woodstock has been documented countless times in the 50 years since the event, the Harlem Cultural Festival was all but lost to time. Footage from the concert — which featured such headliners as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more — was never viewed publicly and the festival remained but a distant memory to those who had attended.

So when it came time to make the non-fiction film “Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson wondered if he was the right filmmaker to tell this incredible true story.

“My first thought was, ‘Why me?” Thompson tells Gold Derby. “‘This is too historical to put in a first time director’s hands. You might want me to amplify it and throw a music festival with it, that’s what I do well, but directing? I don’t know.’ It took a lot of coaxing and then I realized that as the person who is always kind of micromanaging, arm-chair critic for every music documentary, I decided to step up to the plate and create the film that I would salivate over. The fact that no one knew it was coming makes it sweeter.”

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Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Summer of Soul” combines the rare archival footage of the concert with new interviews Thompson conducted with attendees and participants in the event. The structure came about through evolution, Thompson explains, in part because of the cultural climate brought about by former President Donald Trump and his divisive policies and rhetoric.

“Suddenly I realized you couldn’t tell the difference between 2019 and 1969,” Thompson says. “It’s almost like the 50-year difference, the same issues were coming up. It wasn’t lost on me that this story had to be told. I kept asking, ‘Have we overcome? Have we reached the promised land?’ Sadly, that answer is no. We went forward just to go right back again.”

That connection between 1969 and the present day — especially with regard to the civil rights protests that spread across America last summer after the murder of George Floyd — is one Thompson says he just couldn’t ignore.

“The same circumstances that caused the concert to be organized and be thrown in the first place are the same circumstances that are happening right now,” he says. “This movie really wrote itself.”

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