The subject of Ahmir Thompson’s debut feature first came to him over 20 years ago. He just didn’t know it yet.
“In 1997, the Roots were in Tokyo, and my translator took me to a restaurant because she thought I had a cool afro,” Thompson—better known as Questlove—says. Soul Train Café was a themed restaurant with monitors all over the walls playing soul clips from a variety of concerts. One of them was a bird’s-eye view of Sly and the Family Stone on an outdoor stage.
“At the time I thought, ‘That must be the Montreux Jazz Festival or Nice Jazz Festival.’ It looks so much like a European thing.” He never imagined it could be set in Harlem, New York. Twenty years later, Thompson met producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein at The Tonight Show. They had acquired a story from Hal Tulchin, producer of the Harlem Cultural Festival, and wanted Thompson to direct.
They spoke to him about this “mythical concert” that took place over six summer Sundays in 1969, featuring everyone from Stevie Wonder to B.B. King to Gladys Knight & the Pips. “I was side-eyeing them, like, ‘Well, that didn’t happen, because I would have known about it,’” Thompson says. “I called people up, and no one had heard about it.” But then they showed him the footage they’d dug up—hours upon hours of legendary performers sharing a stage in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in Harlem, the same summer as Woodstock and just a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The festival brought together music and social justice in a powerful, and public, way.
Thompson was stunned. He couldn’t understand why this hadn’t been brought to light before. He justified it by thinking the quality must be bad, or the audio must be sub-par. Or maybe musical clearances posed an issue. Maybe it was because Stevie Wonder, just 19 years old, wasn’t quite a household name yet. “I was making excuses because I would at least like to have a little bit of faith in mankind that someone would think this was important enough,” Thompson says.
Getting Thompson on board as the film’s director took some convincing. “I hate Roots videos so much,” he says. “I’m just the guy that’s like, ‘Here’s the audio, and that’s all I care about.’ I felt like it was too much work to even start with the visual.”
“In the beginning, I was a little scared. You’re placing this responsibility on a first-time driver. It took me about four to five months to really adjust to it and get my head into the space to make something beautiful.” –Ahmir Thompson
He kept asking the producers, “Why me?” To which they replied, “Well, why not you? You write all these books about music, and you do these gargantuan Instagram posts with lessons.” At the time, Thompson had been teaching at NYU for four years. Over the next few months, he worked on convincing himself that he was right for the job.
When Thompson embarked on the project, he set out to put 15 amazing performances together, curating them like a festival of his own. It became clear to him and producer Joseph Patel while crafting the story that “my parents’ generation and maybe grandparents’ generation would gravitate to this instantly because they know the artists and whatnot.” Maybe Thompson’s generation would enjoy it too, given some of the household names—and if not those, then at least the hip-hop songs that sampled them, like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” or Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” That left millennials and Gen Z. What would be in it for them?
By this point, during the editing process in late 2019 and all of 2020, Thompson says, “It wasn’t lost on us that, in real-time, we were living in the same exact conditions that were happening 50 years ago.” That’s what younger viewers would connect to.
“Someone older will say, ‘Oh, I love B.B. King, and I love the Mavis Staples.’ But for someone younger, it’s the side commentary that we added that let them know, ‘Oh, so history did repeat itself, and we’re going through the cycle again,’” Thompson says. “That’s how I feel like this movie was an adhesive that connects people together.”
“As a former social media addict, I got off the train during TikTok time,” he adds. “It was like, ‘Okay, am I going to get a TikTok account, or am I just going to be 50?’ And I decided, ‘All right, let me get off the train. I’m just going to be 50.’ There was a period in which I was rolling my eyes when I was reading about people getting mad because their content wasn’t getting properly credited on TikTok.” That is, until this year when Black TikTok creators began to strike. “Once I read the story, I realized, ‘Oh, okay. So this is like Summer of Soul, Black creators get dismissed like it’s no big deal.’” Thompson realized how much a music festival in Harlem in 1969 could echo sentiments felt today by artists living generations apart.
From the beginning, Thompson simply wanted to do the story, the festival, justice. Then, he set out to make a cool arthouse film that he would want to watch at Nitehawk Cinema, his favorite New York theater. “I had zero expectations for people upholding this film in the way that they did,” he says. The film wound up receiving the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
“You can’t plan lightning in a bottle,” he says. “The unfortunate, fortunate situation of this movie coming out at a time when the world’s just opening up is that this will be people’s first experience back in a movie theater after. I think all of us are wiser in our appreciation of what we call simple pleasures. Even if I’m walking to 7-Eleven to get toilet paper, I’m like, ‘I’m happy to be alive, and I love that color blue, and, wow, that’s a beautiful car, and, man, I love this door handle.’ We’re still in that sort of honeymoon phase of getting out into the world and being happy.”
In the week after the film’s release, its reception has far surpassed Thompson’s expectations. “I just wanted to make some content that I would watch on the Roots tour bus if I was bored during an hour trek from Chicago to Colorado—and I got more than that.”
Thompson is currently at work on a documentary about Sly and the Family Stone.
All photos courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.