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Questlove Asked to Be a Talking Head in ‘Summer of Soul’ Doc — Then He Ended Up Directing It

The first-time director was "'Matrix' bullet–dodging responsibility" to get out of helming what became a Sundance-winning documentary.

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The

Initially, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson didn’t want to direct what would become documentary “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” The Sundance-winning feature film chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a barely heard-of yet massive music festival featuring Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and more mega-famous music superstars that took place the same summer as Woodstock.

“I was ‘Matrix’ bullet–dodging responsibility. I was just like, I don’t want to do this. I was just telling them, why don’t you let me be, like, executive producer and I’ll still be your talking head,” he told IndieWire editor at large Anne Thompson (no relation) at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles.

Besides, the self-proclaimed music nerd could barely believe that such an event took place and no one he knew had ever heard of it.

“In my mind, I just thought that I knew everything that was important about music and music happenings,” the first-time filmmaker said in a post-screening Q&A. “So how are you going to tell me that somewhere in time, Stevie Wonder and the Staple Singers and Sly and the Family Stone and David Ruffin and B.B. King and the Chambers Brothers, like, all these acts were in this section of Harlem in Manhattan, and you’re telling me that it’s 100,000 people seeing this and there’s not one document of it?”

But after some cajoling from producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, Thompson eventually agreed. Recalled the Roots drummer and longtime “The Tonight Show” bandleader, “They were like, ‘No, you’re a storyteller and you see music [through] a different filter than the average documentary person would see it. We know the way that you see music.'”

After thinking about it — and knowing he’s a walking music encyclopedia who would be annoyed if whoever did make the film got something wrong — he eventually agreed.

“I’m the person in the audience that will be the one telling my date, like, no, that was Phil Specter, they got that one wrong. I’m a walking ‘Pop-Up Video’ commentary person. Even when I’m friends with these people, I hate correcting them on like — ah, that was the wrong year, man. ‘Walk This Way’ came out in ’86. I just wanted to make sure I had an enjoyable time in the theater watching a factual music documentary.”

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