Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson took an immersive approach in his preparations to direct Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), winner of the top nonfiction prize at Sundance and Best Documentary at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.
The film from Onyx Collective, Hulu and Searchlight Pictures celebrates the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, a long-overlooked series of concerts that attracted incredible performers including Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and a teenage Stevie Wonder. Before embarking on shoots for the documentary, Questlove soaked up the archival material while technicians were busy transferring it to digital.
“I had five months while they were processing the videotapes, because it took a long time to bake it and restore it,” Questlove said during a discussion of Summer of Soul for Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary awards-season event. “I just kept this on 24-hour loop for five months in a row — in my sleep, as I was eating my food, in my office, in my studio, my bathroom. This was all that I watched for five months in a row… It’s almost like I lived with it as if it were an art installation.”
Over that time span, particular moments began to stand out among all the extraordinary performances.
“If I saw something remotely interesting that gave me goosebumps, like, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ I took a note,” he explained. “When I had about 30 of those, then I felt like I could come to the table with, ‘Let’s make a movie.’”
Questlove interviewed people who attended the concerts in their youth, and he spoke with many surviving artists about what it had meant to them to appear at the Harlem Cultural Festival in that summer long ago.
‘This is the first time that many of them are playing to audiences that look like them, in this massive capacity… a festival that 70,000 Black people come to at the same time,” Questlove said. “It was overwhelming for them.”
Before participating in the Harlem Cultural Festival, The Fifth Dimension had been tagged with a reputation as a “white-sounding” group. Questlove interviewed Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, showing them video of their groundbreaking performance.
“When I was talking to Marilyn McCoo about the relief that it felt to finally be in front of your people and be accepted from your people, I’ll just say that a lot of those moments were just off-the-cuff talking,” Questlove said. “You couldn’t have planned better soundbites. That was just natural conversation.”
Check out the panel video above.
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