Questlove’s New Music Doc Summer of Soul is a Powerful, Joyful Revelation

The Roots main man and Jimmy Fallon bandleader, Questlove can now add successful feature film director to his impressive resume.

The Roots main man and Jimmy Fallon bandleader, Questlove can now add successful feature film director to his impressive resume.

His directorial debut, Summer of Soul, is a remarkable music documentary that tells the story of “Black Woodstock,” the Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured top African-American musicians in 1969, the same year as that “other” Woodstock.

The documentary captures on film stunning performances by some of Black music’s biggest stars, but also provides amazing context that locates the doc not only in the zeitgeist of that steamy summer of ’69, but also in the struggles that Black Americans still face today.

After the Summer of George Floyd, Summer of Soul gives not only musical relief but also a painful measure of how far we have and haven’t come.

From Glady’s Knight’s stylishly be-suited Pips hesitantly raising their fists to Nina Simone’s explicit celebration of Black Power to Jesse Jackson’s exhortation for the crowd to declare “I am somebody,” African-American identity and how to encourage and celebrate it is at the core of the documentary.

Zooming with the press in advance of the film’s release this month, Questlove discusses some of the musical highlights from Summer of Soul:

B.B King

B.B. King’s set was on fire; my heart was closer with B.B.’s set, in terms of musicianship.

The 5th Dimension

(Band members say in the film they felt “freer” playing at the Festival than on the Tonight Show or Ed Sullivan).

Their set was closer to a gospel revival; I had never heard Billy Davis Jr. use his raspy gospel baritone.

I related to what they said because I realized Black people have to code switch all the time, even in entertainment. I’m a guy who has to adjust his show—if we’re touring with Beck, we’ve got to do a show a certain way, if we’re touring with Wu Tang, a certain way.

And that was their way of telling me that, they too, had to go through that pressure.

Sly and the Family Stone

It would be like if I was taking my nieces and nephews to a Migos concert and, as a 50-year-old I’m kind of like ‘Unh, they’re not Wu Tang but they’re a’right,’ and watching kids go crazy.

That’s what adults were doing with Sly and the Family Stone. They’d never seen a Black act not wear a tuxedo. They were wearing regular clothes.

Sly knew, being cool is what you leave out, not what you bring in.

Questlove is currently working on his second film, a documentary about Sly Stone. Summer of Soul is now streaming on Disney+; review on page 18.

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