NEW YORK (AP) — Questlove responded with incredulous disbelief when he was first told about the footage. A landmark 1969 Harlem concert series that he hadn’t heard of? With Stevie Wonder? With Nina Simone? With Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King and the Staples Singers?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I know everything that musically happened during that time period and I’ve never heard of this in my life. Get out of here,’” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recalled in an Zoom interview. “Then they came back and showed me the footage and I was just jaw-dropped.”
That was the beginning of what would become “Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a concert film directed by Questlove capturing the “Black Woodstock” festival that occurred during the same summer as Woodstock — and just 100 miles away — but received far less attention.
But “Summer of Soul,” Questlove’s directorial debut, finally unearths the landmark event. It debuted Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival where it spawned immediate acclaim and countless at-home dance parties for virtual festivalgoers.
As the Roots drummer and “Tonight” show bandleader, Questlove’s ubiquitous presence in music has often bled into film projects. But “Summer of Soul” is his first time directing.
Over six Sundays in 1969, more than 300,000 gathered in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park for a celebration of soul, gospel, funk and, most of all of Black identity at a pivotal point in African American culture. The Harlem Cultural Festival — “like a rose coming through the concrete” one attendee remembers — came a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The concerts were filmed by the television veteran Hal Tulchin, who captured such jaw-dropping moments as Simone, perhaps for the first time, performing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and Bay Area band Sly and the Family Stone, the only act to play both Woodstock and Harlem in 1969, performing “I Want to Take You Higher.” But Tulchin found that no networks or Hollywood producers were interested in his 40 hours of footage. Tulchin kept trying to find the footage a home until his death in 2017. His widow nearly threw it all away.
“I was just like: ‘Yo, is it that easy just to erase our history?’” says Questlove. “That was the number one thing in my mind: How easy is it for history to be erased? And why does this mainly always happen to Black people?”
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