Interview: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on uncovering the lost footage for his documentary Summer of Soul

Best known as the drummer and joint frontman of Grammy Award winning hip-hop band The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is adding to his already overflowing resume with the credit of director as his acclaimed documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) releases across Australian cinemas.  Uncovering decades-lost footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of musical concerts in 1969 that celebrated African American culture and music, Thompson has lovingly restored the footage and compiled a film that’s as entertaining as it is informative in its quest to further the importance of black history.

Speaking at a global press conference, our own Peter Gray was invited to join the conversation and speak with Thompson about the film, how he went about compiling the found footage, how his own musical background informed his narrative, and if he thinks such a festival could ever be produced today.

Can you tell us about how you first learned about the footage?

I first inadvertently saw the footage back when The Roots first went to Tokyo in 1997.  My translator for that tour who knew I was a soul fan took me to a place called the Soul Train Café.  So unbeknownst to me, I was watching two minutes of Sly and the Family Stone’s performance. But because it was what I knew to be camera two, which was like the bird’s eye view, or nosebleed section, I didn’t know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. I just assume that all festivals in the ’60s were from Europe because America really didn’t have that culture yet, only to find out exactly 20 years later when David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told me that they had this footage and they wanted me to direct the film. So I first saw it without knowing it in 1997 and presented to me in 2017. And even then, I didn’t believe it was real.

What part of the process in making this film did you feel the greatest shift within yourself as an artist and storyteller? Was it looking through the footage, interviewing talent festival attendees, piecing it all together, or the dialogue you’ve had with those who’ve seen your film?

(Laughs) Without being all touchy-feely with it, this project more than anything has helped me develop as a human being.  For all of you journalists out there, you know that sometimes artists can be really neurotic and living inside our heads.  You know, it’s kinda weird that even though I wrote the Creative Quest book, in which there was one point where I caught myself, like, going back through chapters five through eight, (it was) mainly dealing with how creativity is transferable.  I will not hesitate to admit that of all the things that I’ve done creatively, this is the one that I was really, really, um, nervous about.

And by nervous, I mean scared. Partly because I’m a perfectionist.  What I will say is that this film has really brought out an awareness and a confidence in me that I never knew that I ever had. And, you know, a lot of times, everything that I do creatively is behind a shield. You know, behind the drum set, behind my dad, behind Black Thought, behind Jimmy (Fallon), behind turntables.  With the exception of teaching at NYU, you’ve guys have never experienced me one on one.  I have the safety of Instagram or a book. Like, there’s always a barrier that gets you from getting in there, and that’s sort of like how I thought I liked it.  So I will say that the amount of confidence that I got as a human being, this was a game-changer for me. Not saying that I’mma go through life like without fear and do Will Smith’s cannon jump or something like that.

But on (the) technical side of things, I also learned, despite this long-ass answer I’m giving you, I also learned the power of editing.  Most Roots albums are these gargantuan, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, this what I’m bringing to the table.  My first draft was like three hours and 35 minutes, and this is where I really learned that less is more and less is impactful. Like, the three-hour-and-35-minute version of the film probably wouldn’t have hit you in the gut more than a very succinct two hours.  Sorry for that long answer.

Who of the performers in the film would you most want to have played with?

Of course the “Captain Obvious” answer is Stevie Wonder.  But I will say that there’s 40 hours’ worth of performance captured.  And you guys really only got to witness maybe 10 to 15 percent of it. But as far as, like, musicianship and intensity? B.B. King’s set was on fire.  So I was like, if I were vicariously one of those drummers during the set, my heart was closer with B.B. King’s set as far as just the musicianship and whatnot.

As a DJ, you’re someone who tells stories via music. Were there parallels between using those muscles mixing music and the discipline in which you approached this wealth of footage, assembling it in a way that it tells a story and has a narrative balance?

Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell the story.  I remember back in school when we were learning about story arcs.  You know, establishing rising action, climax, falling action, ending.  I couldn’t quite see it in the way that my teachers back in school wanted me to see storyline. So, again, I actually had to refer to Creative Quest.  It’s so weird.  I was out of my head for that one second. I could blame it on, like, also surviving in the pandemic, you know, because we really started the editing process at the top of the year where-in which you got to devote half the time to, like, your survival and your family’s survival, and oh, also this movie.  So I will say that there is a point where I was wondering, like, could I take the same approach that I take to DJ-ing or putting a show together with this movie?  And that’s exactly what I did.  For five months I just kept it on 24-hour loop no matter where I was in the house or in the world.  If anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it.  And I felt like if they released 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation. So I tend to work backwards. Whenever I’m given a project, the first thing I think about is what is the last 10 minutes of the show or the set that makes the person who goes home think, like, “Man, that was incredible.”

Because usually the last 10 minutes of a show or a presentation is your chance to, “Men in Black flashy thing” your audience. And, you know, I’ve had disastrous Roots shows where I knew, okay, if I make these the last two songs and do this certain things, they’ll forget about what happened in the middle of the show. And that happens a lot. So that’s a trick I play.  Of course I wanted to make my entry in the film world.  Like, my version of inserting myself in this film without me seeing it kind of in a TikTok way.

In the film, Sly and the Family Stone is described as, quote, transformative cool. And later, there’s talk about the power of freedom music in 1969. Which artists or music genres do you see continuing that tradition of transformative cool and freedom music?

While doing this film, I’m also working on my next book. I know I feel like such a product, guys, but that’s how I work. Like, it’s almost like I’m using the Prince manual. You know, he already had “Around the World in a Day” ready right when “Purple Rain” was out. Like, so right now, my mind is on October to March of next year.   When (I heard) transformative cool, I really wanted to start to investigate  Oftentimes you think, well, like, counter culture, and you think, like, hippies or white people, whatnot.  But I wanted to sort of investigate the black side of things.  And I saw an article by April Walker, and she’s describing a black woman that comes on a train, and she’s trying to describe what cool is. And for her, the greatest weapon that this black woman had, this very beautiful black woman gets on the train, and she noticed that four key people positioned on the trains were ogling her.  From April’s point of view, she said that the more that this woman ignored the gaze, the more she became cool. Because cool’s more about what you leave out instead of what you bring in.

So all those hippies that will become of age as teenagers and young people, when they’re 13, 14, 15, they’re listening to Sly as a disc jockey.  And his radio show was really different back then. Like, he was really unhinged.  Talking about “the man” and going against the system. Like, stuff you weren’t supposed to talk about in 1963.  So, you know, his version of cool was more about not being of the system and sort of being cool is what you leave out, not what you bring in.  And that’s what I’m trying to process and learn right now. I hope I answered that question.

How much work did it take to make the audio work as well as it did in the final cut of the film?

Man, I’mma tell you.  The million-dollar question. There’s two million-dollar questions of this film that are still unanswered. One, as hard as I tried, I could not get any direct connection to Tony Lawrence. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. I don’t know where he lives, nothing of his legacy.  The only paper trail I have of him is just of the people that we found.  The other thing was, how could that audio be so pristine? The audio that you hear in the movie, this is not to discredit our-our wonderful sound team, especially Demi Douglas who, you know, is to me, God engineer.  He’s the only engineer I’ve ever used on my albums of which I never had to micromanage. I just send him the stuff, he knows what to do, he sends it back to me, and I have no complaints.  But I’ll be honest with you, we had to do maybe two percent adjustment on the audio. Like, the audio that you hear with the music is the dry rough mix, the soundboard. Like, the reference mix sounded perfect.

And for the life of me, I can’t figure out how 12 microphones were utilized in a way so powerful, especially when three of those – the Stevie Wonder set – three of those microphones are on his drum set that he only uses once.  And the other three are on his other drummer. So, six microphones for two sets of drums.  And then the other six, Stevie’s vocal, one mic for the amp, for the guitar and the bass combined, and the rest are on the orchestra.  And I’m trying to figure out for the life of me, why does this sound so crisp and pristine?  And it’s to the point where I’m almost tempted to strip down The Roots ourselves.  I called my production manager, telling him like, “Yo, they only used 12 to 15 microphones this whole production, and it sounds perfect. How many do we use?” And with a straight face, he was like, “Oh, all 11 of you? You guys use 103 mics.” (Laughs) so, yeah.  I’m trying to figure out if we can, if The Roots as a band can even survive with just 15 microphones.

Do you think something like the Harlem Cultural Festival could be or would be put together today?

Um, yeah. You know, not to toot my own horn. I mean, right now, festivals are all the rage.  I can say that The Roots Picnic is sort of in the vein of the Harlem Cultural Festival.  In the DMV area, the Broccoli Festival, that’s probably the belle of the ball right now.  So, we’re starting to see sort of regional, local festivals on this level happen now, like in the last five years.  I do believe that, you know, America is catching up with festival culture.  The prime reason why The Roots had to pull a Hendrix and move to Europe, we moved to Europe, uh, in-in the U.K. was basically because, you know, over in Europe, there were over 700 festivals to choose from.  At the time we were, like, one of seven groups with a record deal.  Right now it’s, you know, I think with a major record deal it’s, like, what? Migos and The Roots (laughs) as far as non-solo acts, or, I mean, even groups. I’m not even talking about a band, but just like people collaborating, that’s a rare thing.  So, we had to move to Europe for four years because we knew that festival culture was the thing in Europe.  And moving back to the United States, the first thing we said was, you know, “If we have to show the world what we learned, what is that thing?” So, that’s why we wanted to do The Roots Picnic, to let people in our town know this is how it is over there. So, you know, now festivals are kind of a thing.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is screening in select Australian theatres from September 2nd, 2021

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.