Now in theaters and on Hulu, “Summer of Soul” is two hours of amazing. It’s the feature debut of a 50-year-old musician, working from rarely seen videotapes of six different 52-year-old concerts. And it’s 55 times better than the average music documentary or concert movie.
The Chicago connections run deep: B.B. King, Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers, Abbey Lincoln and others all triumphed at the summer 1969 concerts collectively known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and so many more took the stage as well, a few weeks prior to a more widely celebrated music festival due north near Woodstock, New York.
The original title of “Summer of Soul” was in fact “Black Woodstock.” But in the end the director of the project, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, longtime member of The Roots and a true creative polyglot, thought better of it. “I wanted to keep away from ‘Woodstock’ got all the credit! ‘Woodstock’ got all the credit! I didn’t want to enter into the project defensively,” Thompson told me in a recent Zoom interview. “The last thing we did to this film was give it its new title. We realized that casting this film in the shadow of ‘Woodstock’ would’ve done a major disservice. We needed to find a rhythm and an identity of our own.”
Q: Here’s what struck me the second time I saw it. You have a film that makes all these detours — mini-documentaries — within the documentary itself, so that you get a sense of what this act or that artist meant at that moment. What kind of talks did you have with your editor (Joshua L. Pearson) about how to do that without grinding the movie to a halt, over and over?
A: This was the question. Can I get from point A to point B in a straight line without giving (the audience) tidbits on everything? Almost everything in my life has been going down some kind of rabbit hole or other. I was really impressed how Sydney Pollack kept me in the room in “Amazing Grace” (the superb Aretha Franklin concert film, recently redisovered and restored). I wanted to do that here, in a way, but the director’s commentary freak in me, the musical historian in me, also wanted to put the music in context.
Also I was trying to figure out how to grab Gen Z and millennial audiences who might not know Sly and the Family Stone, but probably know the Humpty Dance, because they know the music Sly’s been sampled in. But this generation today is living through the same conditions that caused this concert to happen in the first place. So the question became: How can we explain (the societal unrest and connections between 1969 and 2021) without being Captain Obvious and putting Black Lives Matter footage in there?
We didn’t have to do that, because it’s so gob-smackingly obvious that history is repeating itself.
Q: After joining the project, you used Twitter to find people who were there, at the festival, in ‘69, right?
A: I tweeted out my question to the world: Do you have that crazy uncle who won’t stop talking about this concert he saw in 1969? Is there someone in your life who’s always taking about the Harlem Cultural Festival? I knew there I probably wouldn’t find a 70, 80-year-old on Twitter. But there had to be a nephew or a niece or a daughter or a grandson whose parents were always going on about this thing they saw in Harlem.
Sure enough, I was right. Weird enough, first person was, like, ‘Full disclosure: I was only 5 years old at the time. But I was there.’ We thought: What insight is a 5-year-old gonna have about the emotional impact of this concert? But this guy, Musa Jackson,was, like, ‘This is my very first memory of my life. So I’ll tell you what I remember.’ We brought him in. And he opens and closes the movie, and wound up being our spirit guide.
In the movie you see him watching the footage for the first time, and he’s crying. It was like we were handing him back his memory. Once we saw that emotional response to it, we realized this was more than a movie.
Q: Thanks for making such a good one.
A: Thank you for receiving it! (laughs) I never tire of critical praise. It puts me in my happy place.
“Summer of Soul” is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu.
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