NEW YORK – Questlove responded with incredulous disbelief when he was first told about the footage.
A landmark 1969 Harlem concert series that he hadn't heard of? With Stevie Wonder? With Nina Simone? With Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King and the Staples Singers?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I know everything that musically happened during that time period and I’ve never heard of this in my life. ‘Get out of here,’” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recalled in an interview. “Then they came back and showed me the footage and I was just jaw-dropped.”
That was the beginning of what would become “Summer of Soul (...or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," a concert-film time-capsule of a historic but largely forgotten festival. Known as “Black Woodstock,” the festival occurred during the same summer as Woodstock — and just 100 miles away — but received far less attention.
“Summer of Soul,” Questlove's directorial debut, finally unearths a little-seen landmark musical event. It debuted Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival where it spawned immediate acclaim and countless at-home dance parties for virtual festivalgoers — a party Questlove extended with a live-streamed after-party DJ set.
As the Roots drummer, the “Tonight” show bandleader, an in-demand producer and a self-declared “music nerd,” Questlove's ubiquitous presence in music has often bled into film projects. But “Summer of Soul” is his first time directing — his first “jawn,” as he labels it, using Philadelphia slang — even if he never sought it out.
“You’re asking if this was on my bucket-list bingo card?” says Questlove smiling over Zoom.
“I was thinking in a more seasoned director’s hands, this could change someone’s life," he says. “I knew I was watching something special. But I got over my fear. I often will go through impostor syndrome. I realized now it’s my chance to change someone’s life and tell a story that was almost erased.”