Summer of Soul and the Black Woodstock: “This is not the last time that I tell our story”. Available on the Disney + platform, the documentary Summer of Soul shines the spotlight on the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event of the summer of 1969. At a press conference, artist and director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson confides.
Summer 1969, thousands of spectators gathered in the aisles of Mount Morris Park in New York to applaud exceptional performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone or even Sly and the Family Stone. Yet despite the magnitude of the event, the Harlem Cultural Festival quickly sinks into oblivion.
More than fifty years later, this event finally receives all the attention it deserves in the enthralling documentary Summer of Soul, acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival 2021. Behind this film, to be discovered now on Disney +, hides musician, journalist and now director Ahmir Thompson, known by the stage name Questlove. At a press conference, he confided in this first achievement.
“I first saw the images without knowing it in 1997.”
Touring Tokyo for the first time with his band The Roots in 1997, Questlove discovered footage of a performance by Sly and the Family Stone during a visit to Soul Train Cafe. He does not yet know that he has just watched an extract from the Harlem Cultural Festival.
“I just assumed that all the festivals in the 60s were held in Europe because Americans didn’t have that culture yet. Exactly twenty years later, David Dinersteini and Robert Fyvolent announced to me that they had the recording [du Harlem Cultural Festival] and wanted me to make this movie. So I first saw the footage unknowingly in 1997, before it was shown to me in 2017, and even then I couldn’t believe it was real, ” says Questlove.
An impactful work
If the artist has many strings to his bow (author, composer, journalist, DJ, producer), he signs here his very first achievement. His meticulous work on this ambitious project obviously marked him personally.
“This project helped me grow as a human being […]. I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that, of all the things I’ve been able to do creatively, this was the one I was most nervous about, and by nervous I mean scared, certainly because I’m a perfectionist, ” he explains. “I would say that this film allowed me to acquire a sensitivity and a self-confidence that I was not aware of.”
From a professional standpoint, Summer of Soul was also very rewarding for the director. “I also learned the power of editing […]. Our first version was 3 hours and 35 minutes long, and that’s how I really learned that the shorter the better. A shorter film is more impactful, ” underlines Questlove.
Summer of Soul leads the way
Thanks to its documentary, Questlove finally offers a second life to this major event in African-American music and culture. An accomplishment that is very close to his heart, but which is only the beginning according to him. “It’s not the only recording that’s gathering dust,” he declares.
“Maybe this film can be a starting point for these stories to finally see the light of day. Even something as small as social media content or one of the first black festivals is important to our history. […]. This is not the last time that I tell our story! ”
Discover the documentary Summer of Soul now on the Disney + platform.
Interview by Solène Boutillier during the press conference on June 22, 2021.