In the Hot Docs Festival keynote, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson spoke with film critic Radheyan Simonpillai about his new documentary Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The film chronicles a 1969 Harlem music festival that featured such artists as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone. The footage of the festival in the documentary has never before been released. The two-hour film, which marks Questlove’s first time directing, will hit theaters and Hulu on July 2.
On seeing the footage for the first time…
Questlove: I got scared. I was like, wait a minute, Why would you guys ever trust this first-time driver with this 18-wheeler truck? I just got my permit yesterday at the mall. It took so long for me to really come to grips that I have to tell the story. Once I dove in, I dove in all the way. My first question was: How did this happen and almost little to no fanfare occurred because of it? And why am I the designated one to tell the story? Things worked out, and I’m elated I got the chance to tell the story.
On putting the festival in context…
The first thing I did was recapitulate the festivals that have occurred before on film. The oldest ones were Wattstax, Soul to Soul, the Soul Power film, which was the supplement to the When We Were Kings documentary. At the time in which I resigned to do this, Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace film about Aretha Franklin’s landmark 1972 gospel album had just come out and he took a very unique approach. They just showed the performance without any context whatsoever, no interviewed heads or anything.
Because the [Summer of Soul] performances were that strong and majestic, I initially thought that that was gonna be the route that we should take. I’d say that the fourth wall is probably the most magical part of the film process that I saw, watching people watch this festival, and the fourth camera that was always on the audience’s face. We thought we’d just try to find some people of age, but it was hard because this happened 50 years ago. A lot of people had lost memories, so you had to find a very specific person who was somewhere between the age of 5 and 19. If they were 19, they were approaching 70, and you were really lucky to find anyone older than that in their 80s that could recall moments from that particular festival.
Time was the true author of this festival. Around late 2019, it was like we had to go into a further direction to this story. The irony wasn’t lost on us that we were living in real-time the very things that were happening in 1969. Then it just became, how do you nuance the story so that it’s not Captain Obvious? It would have been easy for us to insert Black Lives Matter footage, put a trap song here to compare. I think the audience is smart enough to see what we were trying to go for. And the story just told itself.
There were moments where we thought this is over. The week that we started quarantine was one of the biggest interview weeks that we had, and that just all went out the window. We kind of had to start from scratch. I would say that just that period from March of 2020 to about August or September of 2020 just something magical opened and we just went with it. I’m glad we did.
On reaching millennials and Gen Z…
I’ve done many a focus group for various ages. I knew there were different demographics that I needed to hit. Of course, it’s easy to hit people my age. It’s easy to hit hip-hop heads. I had my work cut out for me on how to reach millennials and Gen Z in a way that is natural and not like by watering it down and breaking it down. I just think that’s insulting where you have to sort of dumb things down to make sure that people get it. I feel like Gen Z and millennials are 42 billion times smarter and catch on faster than anybody that came before. So, there was a point where I was showing gospel footage to my girlfriend’s kids and their cousins who are like 25, 26, 27. They had zero reference points for any of that. There’s a point during the gospel footage where they’re getting in the spirit.
We live in a GIF culture where memes are a form of communication. Anything that can be framed in a two-second GIF could be seen as funny. I had to explain to them that in the time of slavery, not only was reading and writing and communication illegal, emotions were illegal as well. In terms of the performances, with Sonny Sharrock’s crazy, out-there guitar solo, or those heated fiery gospel performances, that was as close to therapy, that’s what Black people used to express themselves.
Once I had to put it in that context they were like, ‘Oh, we get it.’ I too was one of those kids that used to laugh at the deacons and their wives falling out in church. Now I realize there wasn’t such a thing in Black communities as dysfunctional families, and you go to therapy and that stuff. We didn’t speak that language. Gospel is all we had. I felt it was really important to also show how music is used to not only calm people down but also for artists themselves to express themselves from going out of their minds.
On the intersection of secular and gospel music…
We had an embarrassment of riches as far as the footage was concerned. We had over 40 hours of footage. It’s like how do you choose the magic moment? For a lot of these performances, as a filmmaker and storyteller, yes, it’s wise for me to choose the familiar song. Of course, you’ve gotta show the Fifth Dimension doing “Let The Sunshine In,” you gotta show Edwin Hawkins doing “Oh Happy Day.” A lot of the crazy, amazing performances were unknown songs.
Gospel had just gotten to a point where it wasn’t angering Black people when a lot of those gospel singers were moonlighting; they would call it moonlighting for the devil. Ray Charles sort of introduced the idea of why don’t we take this gospel song and make it a secular song? Black people were up in arms about that. It’s normal now, but back in 1962 it was like the uproar over Cardi B’s “WAP,” that’s what Ray Charles was dealing with when he sang “I Got a Woman.” Now it’s like, Oh, that sample from Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” No, that was like one of the most dangerous songs ever. 1969 was an era of change, where gospel into soul music was just as controversial as whatever the hot topic it is now. It really just took some time for it to become mainstream and accepted.