“I believe that a big reason why this ambitious idea of throwing a music festival in Harlem in which somewhere between 70,000 to 90,000 people every weekend would see performances was so that there was something joyous and hopeful for people at that point were kind of at the end of their rope,” Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says about the importance the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival had to a Black America ravaged by violence and assassination.
“It was a healing moment, if you will,” Thompson added during the film’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees event. The Roots drummer, bestselling author, musicologist and now Oscar nominee made his feature directorial debut with the feature documentary.
Having premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in 2021, Summer of Soul took home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the documentary categories in Park City. Picked up by Searchlight Pictures and Hulu, the wonderfully trenchant film has scored a shelf full of critics awards, and a trio of IDA Awards last night. The film is also up for a BAFTA and a Grammy, as well as the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.
It’s not hard to figure out the acclaim and the exposure Summer of Soul has received. The found footage that packs the nearly two-hour film features performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Max Roach, the divine Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips and many many more, as well as an exploration of cultural erasure and race in America.
Having learned about the almost hidden piece of history that was the Tony Lawrence-organized and -hosted 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Thompson discovered more surprises than what was in the cans of film shot by Hal Tulchin and locked away in a residential basement for decades.
“The things I discovered, probably the most interesting, was that Jimi Hendrix also desperately wanted to play this festival the day that Sly and the Family Stone played, and for some reason or another he wasn’t unable to do it,” Thompson said of Hendrix, who would go on to play Woodstock later that year. “Also, I learned that Aretha Franklin was an eleventh-hour no-show,” Thompson spills of the Queen of Soul and a certain spectacular duet she was supposed to participate in with Mahalia Jackson.
Summer of Soul is produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein with RadicalMedia. Jen Isaacson, Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Jody Allen, Ruth Johnston, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Beth Hubbard, Davis Guggenheim, Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, David Barse, Ron Eisenberg, Sheila Johnson and Questlove serve as EPs. Jonathan Silberberg and Nicole Stott are co-executive producers. The docu is a Vulcan Productions Production in association with Concordia Studio, Play/Action Pictures, LarryBilly Productions, and produced by Mass Distraction Media and RadicalMedia.
Check out the panel video above.