By Bill King
"Enslaved Africans were not allowed to laugh on some plantations, and in the act of defiance and as a mode of survival they often stuck their heads into barrels to laugh out of sight and out of earshot of white slavers. Yet, you could sing aloud, letting slavers know where you were."
Points made by Amir "Questlove" Thompson to NOW film critic Radheyan Simonpillai in explaining the roots of gospel music during a recent Hot Docs interview and his involvement directing the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner in the U.S. documentary category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Thompson, frontman of the Jimmy Fallon Show pit band, is both a drummer/bandleader of the hip-hop unit The Roots and a music historian, an eloquent storyteller, and a four-time Grammy winner.
Summer of Soul? In one word. Magnificent!
Producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fryolent approached Thompson with an offer to direct a documentary. After viewing the trove of rich black history, Thompson saw this as a project of significant proportions that should be in the hands of an experienced filmmaker of Spike Lee's stature. He was astonished the footage sat abandoned for so long, and, aware the music would have had an enormous impact on his development, he queried, "What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table? How much of a difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment that extinguished any doubt I had that I could do this."
Once gathered, it took Questlove 5 to 7 months to think through the narrative. "How did this happen, and why little fanfare?"
Recorded with five cameras using professional two-inch audiotape, and in front of 300,000 onlookers over six summer weeks in Harlem 1969, this may be the most archetypal document of the late '60s, politically, culturally, and musically. It featured Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Walter Hawkins Singers, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, gospel symbol Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers and more. Motown pop, gospel, Afrobeat, Latin jazz, jazz, R&B and psychedelic funk. Spanish Harlem meets Black Harlem.
It was a local club singer and promoter Tony Lawrence who convinced the New York City parks department to produce a series of concerts. Found a sponsor in Maxwell House Coffee, and sympathetic support from NYC's Republican mayor John Lindsay whose strolls through Harlem and black neighbourhoods helped him capture 45% of the black vote.
Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin (The Bobby Goldsboro Show, The Wayne Newton Special, Times All-Star Jazz Show, the $64,000 Question) shot 40 hours of state-of-the-art two-inch video. "I shot the festival, tried to sell it. … Woodstock got all the publicity, so in selling it, I started to call it the ‘Black Woodstock’. ‘It didn't help," said Tulchin. "Nobody was interested in the Black show. Nobody! Nobody cared about Harlem.” Tulchin died in 2017.
It was executive producers Jon Kamen and Dave Sirulnick whose film, What Happened, Miss Simone, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, who remembered seeing three minutes of Simone's performance footage at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and questioned what became of the reels. Producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyolent approached the two and disclosed they had been working ten years securing the rights to the footage and that they had connected with the estate. The lost reels had remained stored in Tulchin's basement for fifty years, amongst other memorabilia from the series. Tulchin's widow's seven-week deadline - the cellar to be cleared - prompted action. Tulchin's footage, notes, receipts etc. Stevie Wonder's rider, Sly Stone's contract paying the band $2,500 for the set are just a few of the items unearthed.
The six free summer concerts billed The Harlem Cultural festival, staged in Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park), were launched to avoid more violence, celebrate black self-determination and calm people for the summer. "The goal of the festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in 1969," says interview subject Darryl Lewis who attended the festival as a child. The concert arose as a backdrop to the unrest and turmoil of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King.
Thompson's first act was to review past soul films depicting the era–1973’s Wattstax, a benefit concert organized by Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in the African-American community of Watts, Los Angeles. Soul to Soul, a 1971 documentary film about the Independence Day concert held in Accra, Ghana, on March 6, 1971 (Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, The Staple Singers, Santana, Roberta Flack and The Voices of Harlem). And When WeWere Kings, a concert accompanying the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (it featured James Brown, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, Fania All-Stars, and The Crusaders). The release of Sydney Pollack's and Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace –cameras focused mainly on the artist and performance.
Thompson also considered the parallels between the summer of 2020 and 1969—the police killings, riots, unrest, black empowerment and how they possibly mirrored one another. Thompson chose to explore what he calls the "fourth wall," the fourth camera from the shoot capturing the attendees in the crowd. Searched for faces in the footage ranging in age 5-19 years of age by now in their fifties and seventies and collect remembrances. After considerable thought, Thompson chose not to draw comparisons between the past and present and let the film ride on its one-off beauty. Editor Joshua L. Pearson and Thompson then interwove the concert footage, crowd reactions, cultural awareness, fashion, a Harlem in economic pain yet striving as a bustling centre for black-owned businesses, well of endless optimism and creativity.
Summer of Soul occurred two weeks before Woodstock. When presented to potential studio houses, it was declined, he was told middle America was too conservative and unprepared and unwilling to accept a film of positivity and black pride, favouring what Thompson calls – "Trauma Porn." Bombarding an audience with gratuitous racial violence.
Thompson also addresses a tense but transitional period for black music. Rhythm and soul, characterized as "Moonlighting for the devil music." Something that angered churchgoers. That fusion of gospel and secular music an unapologetic Ray Charles crossed back in 1954 with the single; I Got a Woman, a hybrid Charles romp setting the stage for what was to come. Summer of Soul straddles the line between the Martin Luther King generational message of peaceful resistance and the emergence of the Black Panther's counteroffer – self-determination and self-defence. The purist gospel of Mahalia Jackson vs the testimonial funk of Sly and the Family Stone.
Admittedly, Thompson involved everyone, from producers to film staff, stating they had total clearance covering his rookie directing mistakes. "I live a life where musical gatherings and musical moments define my life. Twelve years old at the height of Thriller defined my life. Being six years old when Saturday Night Fever was at its apex, that defined my life," Questlove said in an interview at Sundance Studios for Variety.
"What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table? How much of a difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment that extinguished any doubt I had that I could do this."
An exuberant Stevie Wonder opens with the Chambers Brothers backing – first pounding away at a Clavinet D6 keyboard, then settling behind a drum set. What you hear is not the smooth, graceful fills of a seasoned jazz drummer but a raw powerhouse on the rise. Rhythms, you will soon hear on Wonder recordings Superstition and other classics.
"I just wanted to shout, and … standing there with Sister Mahalia Jackson, I got up, and I started that song," Staples recalls in the film. "It was just an unreal moment for me."
In one of the most poignant moments in the film, Jackson passes the microphone to a young Mavis Staples, insisting she lead the crowd in a spellbinding version of Dr. King's favourite hymn, Take My Hand, Precious Lord. It's one of those 'forever' moments beautifully filmed. The expressions, empathy and concern for the rendering engraved on the performer's faces are just a handful of the reoccurring memories: the close-ups, the amber light of evening, the flawless vocalizing, and others.
A Fifth Dimension, decked head to toe in solid yellow jumpsuits led by the strikingly beautiful Marilyn McCoo, working and winning over the crowd with the group's sunny pop classics. The Temptations David Ruffin - going beyond the modern-day money notes in a righteous turn on My Girl. B.B. King, shuffling the groove on Why I Sing the Blues. A radiant Gladys Knight & her Pips – Heard it Through The Grapevine. Vibrant, beautiful and youthful.
Mongo Santamaria and Watermelon Man. Latin jazz with Ray Barreto–protest jazz with drummer and social activist Max Roach and partner Abbey Lincoln. Afrobeat with Hugh Masekela—pop-jazz with flautist Herbie Mann, revival gospel with the Edwin Hawkins Singers on Oh, Happy Day. The best footage ever of Sly & the Family Stone and I Want to Take You Higher and at film's end, Nina Simone's plea for social justice - Young, Gifted and Black.
Thompson mentions in an afterthought that the film, when originally cut, spanned four hours, then was pared down to 117 minutes. On the cutting floor – the comedy – Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham.
Now confident and willing to stretch, Thompson sees perhaps a doc on Sly & the Family Stone on the horizon!