Largely unseen for 52 years, the film boasts never-seen performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips
“Are you ready, Black people … are you really ready?”
Nina Simone’s melodic rallying cry galvanized a teeming audience prior to her stirring performance at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The singer-activist was part of a stellar lineup that included Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples and Sly and the Family Stone. Now 52 years later, a national audience can get ready to witness Black culture’s deep-rooted impact on music, fashion and history through the film Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
Released July 2 in theaters by Searchlight Pictures and streaming on Hulu, Summer of Soul marks the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It was culled from festival footage filmed over a six-week period in summer 1969, a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The site was just 100 miles south of Woodstock: New York’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Seen by a relative few, the 47 reels of footage were summarily shelved until Questlove learned the mythical festival was indeed real from producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel.
Questlove’s seamless direction transports viewers back to an era that parallels what’s happening now: civil rights unrest, Black empowerment and Black culture’s impactful influence. In addition to the aforementioned stars, Summer of Soul brims with mesmerizing, never-seen performances by The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips and others. Several of the performers and music fans who attended the festival provide insightful color commentary.
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. For Questlove, however, the end goal was to bring back — in his words — the “Black joy” the culture was robbed of some 50 years ago. “This is my chance,” he tells Billboard, “to restore history.”
How did the festival footage come to your attention?
When I was at the Soul Train Café in Japan years ago, I unknowingly saw two minutes of the Sly and the Family Stone performance on monitors inside the restaurant. But it was sort of a far-away shot and I couldn’t see the faces in the crowd. So I thought it was a film clip of Sly and the group performing somewhere in Europe.
Backstage at The Tonight Show 20 years later, I’m told about this mythical festival featuring Sly, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and more. I didn’t think it was real — because there’s no way you’re going to tell me that Nina, Stevie and Sly appeared together at a festival and no one knew or cared about it. Then I thought there must be some bad footage, as with old eight millimeter films. However, when I was shown the footage and heard the sound, it was all perfect. It’s what you’ll see when you watch the film. We did almost nothing to the sound; it was just that pristine.
What is the backstory behind the film’s five-decade absence?
The sad truth is that Black erasure is real. It’s very easy to just dismiss our stories. When Prince released his autobiography, he talked about his dad taking him to Woodstock and how much that meant to him as an 11-year-old; what a paradigm shift it was. The whole time I’m watching this footage, I’m thinking, “OK, I made it here. But what about the other six billion then-future musicians that could have been changed by this movie?” We lost a moment and an opportunity. I made every excuse in the world for that because, again, I have faith in mankind that no one would be that cruel to deny history like that.
Beyond the sound quality, I thought maybe music clearances were the issue. The last Hail Mary throw for [the film’s original director] Hal Tulchin was “Hey, why not just call it Black Woodstock?” That way people would know that this was the Black version of the successful Woodstock festival. It was, “Still, we’re not interested.”
I don’t know what’s in people’s minds. But oftentimes we’re dealing with a system that’s more hell bent on the monetary aspect as opposed to the creative aspect. People tend to think that unless it’s hitting you over the head and can appeal to a wide range of people then it might not be worth exploring. Even now people make decisions based on what Middle America thinks without giving a thought to there being other people in the country. That’s why this is much more than just a movie to me. This is my chance to restore history.
Once you saw all the footage, what was most surprising?
I learned that Jimi Hendrix tried to get on the festival lineup. But he got a no. It’s unfortunate, because Jimi was actually experiencing a transformative period in his life to where he was tired of being the show pony; the exotic, wild Black guy that set his guitar on fire. He wanted to get away from the antics that impressed rock America and go back to his blues roots. So Jimi decided to do a bunch of nighttime gigs after the festival, performing with Freddie King for three weeks in Harlem.
During the last week of the festival, the production people told Tulchin that they couldn’t shoot the whole six weeks because they had another commitment. So the lineup was adjusted to put all the heavy hitters into the first five weeks. Then during the last week, they staged a Harlem pageant featuring local singers. Looking at that list, I realized this was the first performance of an unknown 17-year-old named Luther Vandross. I unearthed a lot, which was the hardest thing: having to leave a lot on the floor.
Which telling moments in the film stand out for you and why?
Probably the most telling moment for me was watching David Ruffin’s performance of “My Girl.” It’s August and he’s wearing a wool tuxedo and a coat. He had to be uncomfortable in all that heat. But back then it was like you had to be professional first before, being happy. The opposite of that is Sly and the Family Stone.
The most revolutionary thing about their performance, especially when you watch the audience reactions, is the revelation that this is the first time that Black people are watching musicians onstage who are wearing their regular clothes. “Wait, they don’t have a suit on. Wait, what’s wrong with this?” Forget there’s a woman playing trumpet and a white drummer in a Black band. Wearing their regular clothes was such a mind-blowing thing because being comfortable was never in the narrative of Black creativity or Black existence. There’s a lot to unpack with that.