Questlove’s ‘Summer Of Soul’ Documentary Wins At Sundance Festival

The film, about the 1969 concerts that became known as Black Woodstock, won both the US Documentary Competition’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards.

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Questlove speaks at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: 2021 Sundance Film Festival/Sundance Film Festival via Getty Images

Questlove’s documentary film Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) has been awarded two prizes at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

At the conclusion of this year’s Sundance, which was pared back and held largely online because of coronavirus concerns, the film was awarded both the US Documentary Competition’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards. It tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the series of concerts held in New York City during the summer of 1969 which came to be known as Black Woodstock.

The celebration of African American culture featured such stars as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, and the Fifth Dimension.

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“It has always been a dream of mine to direct films and telling this story has truly been an amazing experience,” wrote Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in a statement. “I am overwhelmed and honored by the reception the film is receiving and want to give special thanks to Sundance, and my production partners: Radical Media, Vulcan Productions, Concordia, Play/Action Pictures and LarryBilly Productions.”

The new film, which had its world premiere at Sundance, contains footage that had been unseen for half a century. The full series of concerts was filmed by producer Hal Tulchin in a total of 45 hours of footage, but had never seen commercial release. Local station WNEW Metromedia Channel 5 broadcast some of the footage in a series of hour-long specials at the time.

Questlove, the drummer and frontman with the Roots (known for their seminal place in hip-hop and as the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon) spoke about the music in the documentary during an interview at Sundance presnted by Adobe: “Because of my experience in curating festivals or doing shows, either with The Roots Picnic, or, there are times when The Roots are the house band for 12 different acts on the show.

Putting all the pieces together

“It’s my job to put all the pieces together. I’m always thinking of the establishing action, rising action, the climax, and then the falling action, and then the end. I’ve probably had to do six or seven rounds of just sifting through all that footage, either directly watching it and studying it, or having it on in the background and something catches my eye.

“I wanted to take note of what just gave me goosebumps. The first moment for me was watching Stevie Wonder do a drum solo — it’s so on-brand because I’m a drummer. That drum solo went on to anchor the beginning of the film, establishing a vibrant filmmaking style that weaves musical rarities, stunning footage, and social and musical commentary.

“I wanted to have an intro just as strong and gripping as an ending, then in the middle, I think that’s where you sit the most powerful, meaningful moment: Mahalia Jackson passing the baton to Mavis Staples and them singing ‘Precious Lord’ together,” he continued. “Once we had that, then it’s like figuring out a puzzle, where do the other pieces fit in?”

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