Questlove, master musician, professor of ‘Classic Albums’ at NYU, leader of the Roots and “moonlighting” master of the soundtrack to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has just added feature director with his groundbreaking documentary Summer of Soul shining a spotlight on six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock. The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park).
This never-before-seen footage presents a parallel of history being made in a time of unrest, radical change, and a crusade for equality. The film includes concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more. The glimpse the trailer gives us makes you want to get up and join in the moves and the movement.
Questlove, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, had never heard of the event and when approached by producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein says, “I thought these two were trying to gas me up for some Jimmy Fallon tickets.” When he was presented with the footage, he knew he had to exhibit this profoundly important cultural moment that had been almost entirely lost to history. “The festival was a way to offset the pain we all felt after MLK,” says Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at the festival. “The artists tried to express the tensions of the time, a fierce pain and a fierce joy.”
The events starting in 1967, started by local organizer Tony Lawrence, was initially planned to be series of free, weekly, Sunday-afternoon concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park with the support of the New York City Parks Department. By 1969, top 10 A-listers were performing to upwards of 50,000 people joining a celebration of a new culture, of a healing, and a sea change. Hal Tulchin, a local television director, filmed the concerts with a professional crew, but the footage would end up sitting in his basement in suburban Westchester for nearly 50 years. “Not only was the footage forgotten, it was overlooked,” says Sasha Tulchin, Hal’s daughter. “It wasn’t wanted, and then it was forgotten.”
“I thought this was going to be a quiet little arthouse film,” says Questlove. After signing on as director and after sifting through 45 hours of footage, he goes onto say, “My television was like an aquarium.” What propelled him? “The number one question I had was, “Who wouldn’t want to see this?” he says. “Why wasn’t this written about? Who would throw this away?”
What started out as a musical history being told through footage unearthed in 2017 became a nuanced meshing of our past and our present. Artists tell their stories of the festival and of their present. The narrative had to be changed from our 2017 lense to reflect our 2021 reality. This labor of love, this resurrection of untold and forgotten record has been earnestly and passionately pieced together for generations of the past and those to come. “This was supposed to come out 50 years ago, and I was supposed to see this movie as a four-year-old,” he says.
“When Woodstock came out, the movie made household names out of every artist who appeared in the film. The legend of that concert wound up subsequently defining a generation…. And so, as a result, when you think of the late Sixties, you think of hippies, mud, free love, Hendrix, all of those things.” Questlove, however, has given us an essential appendage to our definition of the summer of love.