“Like a rose coming through the concrete” is one description of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival heard in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s exuberant, illuminating documentary “Summer of Soul (...or: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’).”
The event, held the same summer as Woodstock, drew together Nina Simone, a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder (a genius already), Sly and the Family Stone (the lone act to hit Woodstock, too), B.B. King, the Staples Singers, The 5th Dimension, some of the giants of gospel -- including a summit of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing the civil-rights-era anthem “We Shall Overcome.” It was organized, over six summer weekends in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park by Caribbean singer Tony Lawrence and filmed, with plans for a broadcast special, with a multi-camera crew by television veteran Hal Tulchin.
And then the tapes sat. And sat.
No broadcaster was interested back in 1969. Tulchin tried different packages pulled from his 40 hours of footage, but still no one was interested in a film of “Black Woodstock,” as the concerts were known. While that summer's upstate festival took on a mythic, much-documented aura, the Harlem Cultural Festival mostly receded from memory, victim to an early era’s biases. To even some of the participants, a blissful Sunday 50 years ago was hard to recall.
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“We had forgotten all about it. After so many years, you go on with your life, you’re doing different things,” recalls Billy Davis Jr., 83, of The 5th Dimension. “All of a sudden you get a call talking about, ‘Do you remember the Harlem Cultural Festival?’ What? Right away you go back and remember.”
In “Summer of Soul,” in theaters nationwide Friday and streaming on Hulu, a musical flood, too long dammed up, is finally released. Questlove’s film, his first as a director, is both a corrective to a lost history and a foot-stomping, soul-stirring party. The ubiquitous Roots drummer, a proud music nerd, was incredulous that he had never ever heard of the festival before producers approached him.
The thought of directing, at first, made him “panic Smurf,” he says. Then came a revelation: Would Questlove’s life had been different had he’d know about the festival?
“I realized now it’s my chance to change someone’s life and tell a story that was almost erased,” Questlove said in an interview when “Summer of Soul” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and won both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for documentary. “For me, that was my mission, to right a wrong and show that our history is still important. There’s so much more and so much underneath the surface that a lot of people don’t know.”
But how did the festival get from the dustbin of history to Questlove’s hard drive? It started in 2012 when Robert Fyvolent, an entertainment lawyer and former studio executive, was talking with a friend about rights clearances for a Ken Burns-style soul documentary. The friend mentioned the existing footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Fyvolent, intrigued, wondered if that was a better movie. He decided to track down Tulchin at his home in Bronxville, outside New York. Tulchin, then in his 80s, led Fyvolent to the tapes in his basement.
“Over the years, I don’t think he was unaware that he had these materials and they were valuable. But I think he had grown cynical that he could get anybody’s attention,” says Fyvolent. “They were well cared for. They weren’t on, like, a dusty shelf.”
“It was like opening a treasure chest," he says.
Some 300,000 people poured into the free, daytime concerts. The audiences were overwhelmingly Black, with families throughout. Children and grandparents came to watch and listen. Conceived in part as a way for the community to heal after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, the Harlem Cultural Festival, where the Black Panthers handled security, throbbed with the tumult of the times — a pivotal year, the Rev. Al Sharpton says in the film, "where the Negro died and Black was born.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who appeared on stage at the festival, speaks about the moon landing that summer: “When we’re more concerned about the moon than men, somebody better wake up.”
“Al Sharpton explains that that was therapy for Black people,” Questlove says. “We couldn’t afford therapists so that musical expression that you see Abbey Lincoln do with Max Roach, that you see Sonny Sharrock do in his solo, that you see all the gospel artists do, it’s not just a silly way of getting to the climax of a song. That’s rage. That’s rage being released. As time went on, I started to see this movie in a whole other way than I saw it in 2017, 2018.”
Others had circled the project. Tulchin connected with filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon in 2004, but those plans fizzled. Fyvolent paired with a more veteran film producer, David Dinerstein, to move things along, and teamed with RadicalMedia, producer of the Oscar-nominated Nina Simone documentary “What Happened Miss Simone?”
They approached Questlove, who had dabbled in producing film and theater and who, not surprisingly, is an aficionado of concert films. He starred in one memorable documentary: “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” He calls concert films “an obsession and one of my favorite things,” listing movies like 1973s’ “Wattstax,” 1971’s “Soul to Soul,” 2008’s “Soul Power” and Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” (1987) among his favorites.
After watching the Aretha Franklin concert documentary “Amazing Grace” ( another project of long-dormant footage but one done vérité style, without context), Questlove realized he was filled with too much curiosity to walk away.
“The more I kept watching the footage, the more I felt this burning sensation,” says Questlove. “I knew in anyone else’s hands, that there would be some sort of factoid that would set off the cynic in me and the audience. Like: ‘No, that was the wrong question.’ I just had too many questions.”
Tulchin had documented the festival largely on spec. In 2007,he told Smithsonian Magazine that the production was “a peanuts operation because nobody really cared about Black shows.”
“But I knew it was going to be like real estate, and sooner or later someone would have interest in it," said Tulchin. He died at the age of 90 in 2017. By then Tulchin was in touch in Fyvolent and enthusiastically brainstorming about the movie's release.
“Summer of Soul” can be seen as part of a larger movement to uncover Black history, from tragic events like the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 to celebratory, joyous ones like the Harlem Cultural Festival. In the film, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, in mid-song encourages children to learn all they can. “And who knows? There's a change and you be president of the United States one day.”
The film reaches a crescendo with Simone, who implores the audience: “Are you ready to listen to all the beautiful Black voices, the beautiful Black feelings, the beautiful Black waves moving in beautiful air? Are you ready Black people? Are you ready?”
“One of the things I hope this film does is bring this ignored part of American history into the canon of American history,” says producer Joseph Patel. “I hope that now you will never be able to talk about the summer of 1969 and the pivotal events that happened without mentioning the Harlem Cultural Festival.”
Questlove filmed Davis and Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension watching their performance for the first time. They watch in awe as their memories come pouring back, and in amazement at the other performances they hadn’t been there for.
“My god, to see Stevie Wonder as a teenager. B.B. King. Everybody was young,” says Davis.
“When it was found, it was given to the right person,” says McCoo of Questlove.
“I think the Lord knew what he was doing when he had it come out during this time,” says Davis. “Now it really becomes a part of American history."