Remember when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson identified Prince songs by second-long clips on the Tonight Show in 2018? The drummer-slash-frontman of the Roots has proven his chops as a Prince superfan, and he’s talked before about his mysterious relationship with the Purple One. “This is the first time I’ve been to Paisley Park when it’s daylight,” he told a crowd on Sunday night.
That was when Questlove—a Philly native and encyclopedically gifted pop-music factotum—entered the soundstage of Prince’s storied Chanhassen den to talk about his critically acclaimed directorial debut, Summer of Soul. The screening marked Paisley Park’s return to cinematic programming, and an eager, largely middle-aged crowd sat with their backs to a small phalanx of Prince outfits on display. (The studio now serves as a museum.)
Dressed in white-splattered green cargo pants and a black-and-gold, dashiki-inspired T-shirt, Questlove sank into a purple couch across from Andrea Swensson, formerly of The Current. Between them, on a coffee table: a pair of splashy, gold, high-heeled boots.
“You’re about to screen your debut film in the same room that one of your musical heroes shot scenes from the Sign o’ the Times concert film, [and from] Graffiti Bridge. What do you feel right now?” Swensson asked Questlove. “That’s so not lost on me right now,” he replied.
Paisley Park served as a fit venue for Summer of Soul for reasons beyond Questlove’s loyalty. His Sundance award–winning documentary makes a gripping concert film out of recently surfaced footage of the largely forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival. The six-day concert series, spread out over the summer of 1969, booked major artists and was later described as the “Black Woodstock.” (Woodstock happened that same summer.) Combined crowds reportedly crested the 300,000 mark in what was then Harlem’s Mount Morris Park.
While parsing and contextualizing the sun-drenched fest, Summer of Soul plays like an epic live show. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Pop Staples and the Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, and other big names galvanize audiences throughout.
Questlove had some 40 hours of footage to work with. How did he whittle out a two-hour film? He told Swensson he homed in on “goosebump moments” rather than the rote crowd-pleasers. “[Stevie Wonder] did the hits. He did ‘My Cherie Amour,’ all those—‘I Was Made to Love Her.’ He did all those big hits,” he said. “But for me, it’s the other songs that gave me goosebumps.” That means we get to see Wonder bust out a drum solo and groove to “It’s Your Thing.”
The editing process took five months, with Questlove playing the raw footage for himself on what sounds like a constant loop, using monitors throughout his home, he said—in his bedroom, in the kitchen, even in the bathroom. He said the idea of a “visual aquarium” had come from Prince. “I kept note of—like, I woke up in my sleep and saw something.” (Before the Harlem Cultural Festival, some 600 episodes of Soul Train had been rolling across those screens since 1995, he added.)
Summer of Soul’s apt crosscutting of news clips explains how the event was “more than just the music,” to quote an interview with Gladys Knight in the film. As at Woodstock, the music emblematized a politically tense decade—but in a different way. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the year before, inspiring riots. Al Sharpton says at one point in the documentary that Black Americans at the time knew nothing of therapy, “but we knew Mahalia Jackson.” One talking head suggests the Harlem Cultural Festival may have been intended to prevent riots that summer.
It’s a socially charged undercurrent that ties the film to the moment, and syncs it with Minneapolis. It’s also where Questlove sees younger viewers connecting. “George Floyd was such a turning point for the entire nation that, suddenly, it wasn’t lost on us that, wow, like, the footage we’re editing is happening exactly right now, 50 years later. Like there’s an absolute parallel,” he said. “And sure enough, when the movie came out, that’s how [younger audience members] related to it—like, ‘Yo, this is exactly what we had to go through!’”
After the credits, VIP guests pooled into a dance party DJ’d by Questlove. With purple-tinged hair and Love Symbol accessories, the night’s attendees appeared to be those locals self-tasked with carrying Prince’s legacy. In that way, they weren’t wholly unlike Questlove, or even the teens and young adults, interviewed as adults for the film, who flooded around the stage to see Sly and the Family Stone back in 1969.
Highlights from Andrea Swensson’s interview with Questlove:
On Prince’s “visual aquarium”: “People that know me know my pop culture obsession. The person who gave me the idea of a ‘visual aquarium’ was actually Prince. I’m certain half of this audience is familiar with his love of Finding Nemo. Even backstage, there’s, like, DVDs … He would always have either Finding Nemo or Black Orpheus always playing, like, at his house or in concert. My version of that was Soul Train, which, at the time, I had maybe 500 or 600 episodes, so I would just have them on a constant loop. So, probably the hardest thing about doing this film was taking that comfort zone away from me and not watching Soul Train. Since I got those episodes back in ’95, I think, I’ve been—I’d probably say I’ve watched maybe 20 episodes of Soul Train a week. So, imagine the last 25 years watching 20 episodes of Soul Train a week, just going cold turkey. And doing the same with this. Basically for five months I’ve had to keep it in constant loop, because when you have 40 hours of footage, you don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
On the details that draw Questlove to Prince’s music: “My level of creativity, as far as my musicianship is concerned, is living somewhere between the thin line of having a reputation as a very meticulous, quantized, almost machine-like sense of rhythm, and also the polar opposite of that, which is very sloppy, human feel. I describe it as giving a 3-year-old a shot of adrenaline. (Don’t do that to a 3-year-old.) And the thing I’ve learned after the fact, and talking to Susan Rogers and talking to especially Wendy and Lisa, [is] his embracing of imperfection. I just find it amazing, the way that Prince the drummer and Prince the synth player, around the three-minute mark of ‘Dirty Mind,’ suddenly speeds up with each other. The fact that, you know, the miking sounds weird on ‘The Cross.’ It’s not overproduced. According to Susan, that was more to do with impatience—like, ‘No need to go over it—we got it, next.’ … The person who mastered it before he came along and became my North Star, I would say, was probably Todd Rundgren—kind of being the studio bedroom wizard, that sort of thing.”
On what people should take away from Prince’s music 50 years from now: “To me, he was just a fearless creative. It’s so weird that back in 1980, 1982, that was so radical. And now, in 2021, you’re like, ‘That was so PG.’ … I taught at NYU a couple of years, and trying to contextualize to my students, like, how radical this was at the time. Because to them, it’s sort of like, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
On whether something like the Harlem Cultural Festival could happen today: “Technically, yeah, it could happen. It’s weird, when the Roots first started, we decided to pull a Hendrix by moving to the UK, because, you know, in 1993, bands—Black bands in particular—were becoming an endangered species. There really wasn’t any venue structure that we felt the Roots could thrive in. And so, [we were] going to Europe, where festivals were plenty—festivals and jam sessions. … Americans really didn’t grasp onto the festival culture. There was the occasional, like, Cool Festival, or that sort of thing, the Newport Jazz Festival. But not in the mainstream. … I think [the Harlem Cultural Festival] could happen, and it’s actively happening. I mean, H.E.R. right now has the Lights On Festival. They debuted last night in Oakland; I think they’re going to do Brooklyn next week—amazing festival lineup sort of in the same spirit of the Harlem Cultural Festival.”