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June 22, 2021

Questlove shares how he found out 'Summer of Soul' won pair of Sundance awards

Getting a phone call in the middle of a blizzard wasn't ideal timing for The Roots drummer to hear he was now an award-winning filmmaker

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's film directing debut, "Summer Of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," will premiere on Hulu and in select movie theaters on July 2.

But before the musical documentary is released to the general public this summer, "Summer of Soul" officially debuted earlier this year at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience prize in the nonfiction category.

Appearing as an official guest on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on Monday, Questlove shared how he found that he was now an award-winning filmmaker — albeit terrible timing.

"I get a call early in the morning to say at exactly 11:10 a.m. make sure I pick up my phone because Tabitha Jackson, who runs Sundance, wants to talk to me ... We were in the middle of a blizzard, this particular morning, and it was like three feet of snow on the ground," the Philly native said. "There was eight inches of slush, it was hailing and wind. It was the worst conditions, next to Hurricane Sandy. At 11:10 a.m., she calls me right when I arrive at 30 Rock and all I'm trying to figure out is how I'm going to navigate through this three-foot mountain of snow. Tabitha Jackson's from the U.K. and she has a really strong, Monty Python, Robin Leach accent, so she's really milking it on 'Ahmir, I just want to announce to you that you have won...' She's like a muppet, like really excited ... She was like 'How do you feel?' and I didn't know we entered like 'Wait, I won something?' It was like Publisher's Clearing House, that's how she announced it. And my only takeaway was literally, 'Damn yo wearing Crocs in January was a really bad idea.'"

Despite having played at the festival several times as the drummer for The Roots, Questlove described the Sundance experience as "a blur" and admitted to not really understanding the magnitude of the event.

"I didn't know the protocol of what Sundance really was as a competition," Questlove said. "I just thought we were going to show [the film] at Sundance and that's it."

"Summer of Soul" is a musical documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, an event sometimes referred to as "Black Woodstock." It took place during the same "Summer of Love" as the more well-known three-day event in upstate New York. The film features footage that hasn't been seen for more than 50 years.

From late June through August of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival was graced by over 30 performances from music legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and The Pips and more.

One of the event's producers, Hal Tulchin, filmed over 40 hours of footage from the summer series. Most of it never saw the light of day due to a lack of interest in the festival and sat in boxes inside Tulchin's basement for 50 years – until Questlove was tapped to direct the documentary examining the history surrounding the event. Thompson dedicated the film to Tulchin, who died in 2017.

Questlove consulted with critically-acclaimed directors like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay during the filmmaking process. The Philly native said that he chose footage for the film by constantly watching a 24-hour loop of performances wherever he went in his house or studio. 

"So for five months straight that's all I did and I just kept notes on what gave me goosebumps," the musician explained. 

The film's first draft consisted of over three hours of footage and had to be cut down to two hours, a process Questlove described as "the hardest thing in the world to do."

At first, Questlove said it was his goal "to curate 15 really great songs amongst these performers." But the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest across the country last year changed how he and his team approached the project, Questlove said.

"When we went into lockdown, that first day when we all knew, 'Oh, this is real, our lives are never going to be the same in the future,' the irony wasn't lost on me that the circumstances that were happening in '67, '68, '69 and '70 were occurring to us right now 50 years later," the musician said. "We saw it as a chance to contextualize for people like Gen Z and millennials, who aren't familiar with those acts, but why they all got together and used their voice for activism. We really went deep into the narrative of just why it's important and so that's why I feel like it covers everything. Even if you're just there for the music or you see the message of why this concert had to be thrown, it covers all the generations."

About 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, but its place in history has been obscured by lack of exposure in subsequent decades.

Initially, Questlove wanted to call the film "Black Woodstock," a nod to the fact that the festival preceded and later overlapped with the world-famous Woodstock festival in New York in 1969. The title was ultimately changed because he thought it would be a disservice to compare the two, though the documentary points to the forgotten relevance of the Harlem event.

"Summer of Soul" was shown during the Philadelphia Film Society's SpringFest this month at the PFS Bourse in Old City.

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