How Questlove unearthed the long-forgotten 'Black Woodstock'

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When The Roots took over as the house band for Jimmy Fallon's late-night act in 2009, there was plenty of hand-wringing and griping from the hip-hop phenoms' fanbase: How are they possible going to be able to do anything else now?

Cut to 12 years later. Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, for one, has proceeded to release three albums, write multiple books, DJ countless events, voice a character in Pixar's Oscar-winning animated feature Soul, co-produce the Broadway smash Hamilton, serve as the musical producer of the 2021 Academy Awards telecast, and lecture at NYU.

All this while missing only two shows for Fallon.

"I had an emergency root canal one day," Questlove laughed during a recent interview (watch above), just leaving the "roots canal" pun there dangling for us. "So it was like, 'Maybe I should take the day off.' But I'm there every Monday, and there till the end of the weekend. And still manage to juggle 12 other things, including making this movie."

Oh yeah. The movie.

Thompson also made his film directorial debut with Summer of Soul (…Or: When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the vibrant, electrifying documentary that unearths striking never-seen-before footage from the largely forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (aka "Black Woodstock") that brought together acts like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and The Fifth Dimension as America reeled from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which cast a dark cloud over the successes of the civil rights movement.

The critically acclaimed film, the consensus best documentary so far this year, became a sensation at Sundance’s 2021 virtual version, and sold to Fox Searchlight for upwards of $12 million — a record for a documentary.

The 5th Dimension perform in 'Summer of Soul' (Fox Searchlight)
The 5th Dimension perform in 'Summer of Soul' (Fox Searchlight)

"In the nicest way possible, I will say that I was quasi-ambushed with this movie," he says. "I say 'ambushed' only because I would like to think of myself as this savant of music culture that knows everything. And you can't pull one on old Questlove here. And to have my two producers [Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein] be like, 'This thing happened in '69 with 300,000 people witnessing Sly, Nina, The 5th Dimension, and Ray Barretto and Hugh Masekela and Stevie Wonder.' I'm like, 'No! It didn't. I'm Googling it right now. It didn't happen.' And they're like, 'Here's the 40 hours of footage.'"

Then Questlove went to work in the dark. Maybe too much work. "My first draft was 3 hours and 25 minutes," he says. "So somehow to get rid of 90 minutes was hard to do, and painful to do, and still make something impactful that grabs you in two hours."

Speaking of cutting down… One thing Questlove has not worked on as much as some of his fans would like: A new Roots album.

For as much as he's parlayed in these past 12 years, the group he fronts with Top 5 emcee Black Thought has only released three new albums in that span, and none since 2014's …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.

It is not Fallon's fault, Questlove will tell you.

"Fallon is actually the reason why we can’t stop creating music," says the musician, who is also working on a new documentary about Sly and the Family Stone for Act Two. "Because my dressing room is an actual recording studio. … We're up to at least 300-plus demos. So we're bringing in a third party that will say, 'OK, stop making music.' So essentially [a new album] is done. But I just keep creating more songs."

It's not like he's working on anything else.

Summer of Soul is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee

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