Questlove's New Documentary Summer Of Soul : Consider This from NPR In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, another music festival took place 100 miles away. The Harlem Cultural Festival featured black musicians like Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder — stars who we might not have glimpsed at this point in their careers.

Footage of the festival had been locked in a basement for 50 years, because TV and film companies were not interested in it at the time.

Questlove and his fellow filmmakers speak to Audie Cornish about bringing the concert festival to the big screen in their movie, Summer Of Soul, which is also out on Hulu.

NPR's Eric Deggans also reviewed the film. Some descriptions of the film from his review are heard in this episode.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Questlove Unearths The Long-Forgotten 'Summer Of Soul'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 1969, the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to the Harlem Cultural Festival here in Mount Morris park, in the heart of Harlem.

CORNISH: The Harlem Cultural Festival was free to all. Three hundred thousand people showed up. And they saw a galaxy of stars; stars we're all familiar with but whom we might not have glimpsed at just this moment in their careers - Gladys Knight, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, fresh off the Temptations.

AHMIR THOMPSON: In a suit in August, right (laughter)?

CORNISH: In a suit in August. But you look good. You look good.

That's Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the Grammy-winning DJ and musician best known as drummer and composer with the Roots. He didn't even know about the festival until he was asked to direct a documentary about it. It's called "Summer Of Soul." It's out now in theaters and on Hulu. And it opens with something even Questlove had never seen before signing on to the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stevie...

(CHEERING AND SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Wonder.

CORNISH: A performance by a young Stevie Wonder playing the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Instantly, when I saw that Stevie Wonder drum solo, I knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Nobody will see this coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In fact, no one has ever seen any of this footage before. It sat in a basement for 50 years because at the time there were no big TV or film companies interested in it. The festival in Harlem was overshadowed by Woodstock 100 miles away.

THOMPSON: Forty-five hours of footage to go through. It was a shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Coming up, Questlove on the "Summer Of Soul," a long forgotten reminder of the power and resilience of Black American culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, July 5.

It's CONSIDERED THIS FROM NPR. So yeah, Questlove knew audiences had probably heard a lot about the other legendary concert festival in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THOMPSON: In the beginning, I was like, OK, let me watch Woodstock. And then I was like, no, no, no, no. I don't want to be influenced.

CORNISH: Whatever Questlove did or didn't do, it worked. "Summer Of Soul" has been lauded by critics. It won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Our critic Eric Deggans praised the film, too. In Eric's words, "Summer Of Soul" recreates the festival spirit using the performances as inspiration to talk about a crucial time for Black America.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Hey. You like it like that. Yeah. Uh.

CORNISH: Take, for example, the Chambers Brothers' Ode to Harlem, "Uptown."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Do it. Do it. I'm going uptown to Harlem to let my hair down in Harlem.

CORNISH: Using that song as a backdrop, the film describes Harlem as a cultural oasis for Black people. In a new interview, the Reverend Al Sharpton recalls debates back then over using violence to fight oppression.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

AL SHARPTON: The Black community was divided between those that were advocating nonviolent (ph). But most of my friends was with those that were saying self-defense and/or worse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And if that means tearing up the community to gain our freedom, we will.

CORNISH: And in new interviews, musicians reflect on what performing at the festival meant to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

MARILYN MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because...

BILLY DAVIS JR: Yeah.

MCCOO: ...We weren't, quote, unquote, "Black enough."

CORNISH: Marilyn McCoo, a member of The 5th Dimension - she teared up while watching footage of their performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

MCCOO: Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn't like that. That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us - because we wanted our people to know what we were about.

CORNISH: But despite how meaningful the festival was to Black artists and their fans, this documentary almost didn't get made. I spoke to Questlove and the film's producers about why after a Sundance screening earlier this year. They said the footage was tucked away in the basement of the man who shot it, Hal Tulchin. Tulchin passed away in 2017, but not before he shared the archive with the filmmakers, including Joseph Patel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSEPH PATEL: The tape itself is this - in this gorgeous Tiffany blue case. It's about 15 inches in diameter, about 20 pounds a reel - like 60, 60 to 75 reels, somewhere in there.

CORNISH: But they didn't want to just snip together a highlight reel. They wanted to tell a story, and the producers approached Questlove, an author, DJ and composer who had not yet added director to his list of titles.

THOMPSON: The first thing that I kind of said to myself - my ego wouldn't allow me to think that someone had one-upped me on an event that I should have known about but didn't know about. And so I'll say in the very beginning, I felt like, oh, well, this is too historical for a first-time driver to be at the wheel. So maybe you don't want to, you know, leave it in my hands - but the itching and burning of wanting to see this footage and the goosebumps I got watching it.

CORNISH: And Questlove found he could put himself in the shoes of the artists, especially those who could defy expectations about what a Black pop star could or should be.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) He taught me how. Oh, he taught me how.

THOMPSON: I was amazed at the diversity of it because even now, as an established, Grammy Award-winning artist that's been doing this for 25-plus, I have reservations about gigs sometimes. Like, the first thing that I will ask any of my agents, be it a Roots gig or something that I've curated or even a DJ gig, I want to know the makeup of what the audience is because it's almost like I don't trust people's mind to be that open. And, again, this is a concert festival that somehow found space for Moms Mabley and Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Sharrock and Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and Mongo Santamaria, like, every type of genre from Africa to Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you Harlem's very own, the young man who put the soul into the Latin music, Ray Barretto.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: And he wanted to show how the audience itself defied expectations. The festival was embraced by the New York City mayor at the time, the New York police less so. Black Panther Party members did some of the security. But Thompson says this was no Black Woodstock.

THOMPSON: You know, I guess what defines a generation is sort of relative, and somehow, we've romanticized everything that happened at Woodstock to define a generation and all those things. But I can't help but wondering, had there been, you know, 200,000 people that crashed the gates that were just tripping the whole time - like, if that would have happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, would that have the same sort of romantic revision of, you know, a moment of a generation that Woodstock had? And the answer, sadly, is no.

CORNISH: And there was something else. The concerts were taking place at a crossroads period for Black America. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down the year before. The riots and anguish that followed still hung in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

NINA SIMONE: Are you ready, Black people?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah (cheering).

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Are you ready?

SIMONE: Are you really...

CORNISH: And the Black Power ethos that would infuse the '70s was taking root.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

SIMONE: ...Voices, the beautiful Black feeling...

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Are you ready?

SIMONE: ...The beautiful Black waves moving in beautiful air - are you ready, Black people? Are you ready?

(CHEERING)

THOMPSON: One of the key reasons why I felt kind of a sense of purpose for this film was that back in the late '60s, you know, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield weren't, like, billion-dollar industries. They weren't worried about losing their Rolls-Royce or their baller lifestyle because they weren't living that. They were of the people, so if anything, I'm really hoping that this will spark in other artists a new mission.

And I'm not saying that the burden has to fall on us as a people to always say the right thing, to say the most politically correct thing and to always have - you know, no one has to be a straight-A student to that level. Like, I love partying, idiot songs and TikTok music just like the next person but not to the detriment of the message. And so if anything, I want artists to know the lesson that we need to learn is that message and activism - those things matter. Those things matter. We can't lose that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Sock it, sock it to me.

CORNISH: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, director of "Summer Of Soul," out now in theaters and on Hulu. I spoke with him at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, which NPR supported as a media sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) ...To Harlem to let my hair down in Harlem. If a taxi won't take me, I'll catch a train...

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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