Summer of Soul

Editor Joshua L. Pearson had been working exclusively with New York-based RadicalMedia for many years when executive producers at the facility brought him into Summer of Soul, (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a wholly unique feature-length documentary film.

“The gears were already in motion as I came on board,” says Pearson of the project, which would combine previously untouched video of a 1969 New York music festival with new interviews by original participants. “That was incredibly intriguing. Footage had been lost and, for the most, part unseen.”

Dubbed the Harlem Cultural Festival, the material involved notable artists from the worlds of African-American music from Stevie Wonder to Gladys Knight & the Pips, along with politicians and guest speakers, all shot in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park from June 29 to August 24 of 1969 and attended by 300,000 patrons. After a few unsuccessful attempts to resurrect the footage across the years, the project landed in the hands of musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who, according to Pearson, was the ideal addition to the project. “Questlove seemed like the perfect director for this, given his incredible musical knowledge and curiosity,” Pearson explains. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge and intense enthusiasm for the roots of the music that were his influences growing up. He was obsessed with this footage.”

Prior to beginning the process of shooting new interviews and wading through 36 hours of footage captured in 1969, Questlove had personally viewed all of the performances and various addenda from five decades in the past. “He was fascinated by the artists in the festival and the fact that the footage had not been seen by many,” says Pearson. “He saw Woodstock when he was young, and it influenced him. He thought, ‘How would I have been influenced if I had seen this film when I was 12?’”

Despite a very low production budget, including an honorarium from Maxwell House, in 1969, the filmmakers, led by Hal Tulchin, a television producer, shot over six separate weekends, six hours a day, on two-inch videotape. Alas, Summer of Soul was far from a simple event-based documentary edit for Pearson and the entire team. “We quickly discovered – as our assistant editor made sense of all of this footage – there were multiple cameras but no ISO; there was a live line-cut,” details Pearson. “That’s what we had to work with. We couldn’t re-edit the performances.”

Though the post-production crew eventually found one isolated camera trained on the audience during one of the key production dates, to make Summer of Soul work, Pearson devised unique editing processes which he particularly implemented during the myriad musical sequences. “I did a lot of cheats as an editor – we cheat a lot,” he confesses. “There were some instances where I had to rebuild a performance through sleight of hand.

For instance, at the beginning of the Gladys Knight performance of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ there was only one camera on them, an extreme wide shot, and it was bouncing up and down; there were no other camera angles to use. So, I cheated a bunch of shots in from behind, and [incorporated] dance moves from The Pips from other songs.”

One other useful device in the editor’s cache of tools came along inflexibly with the 1969 footage, burned onto the master tapes, and not to Pearson’s liking: very long cross-dissolves. “Those are not mine,” he maintains. “We had no choice. As an editor, cross-dissolves have been driven out of me the last 20 years of working. In this case, we are bringing cross-dissolves back. In the Nina Simone performances of ‘Backlash Blues,’ it seems like the guy with the switcher put the fader at 50 percent for a really long time. This was the aesthetic of the time.”

Significantly, producer Joseph Patel, a 20-year friend of Questlove’s, was involved from Summer of Soul’s outset, initially trying to locate a dubbing facility that had the ability to digitize two-inch videotapes – not surprisingly, two-inch videotape machines have long been considered archaic.

After finding a suitable studio on Long Island, New York, Patel orchestrated the process of carefully digitizing all of the video material which was then catalogued by an assistant editor who started a month before Pearson came aboard. “He organized it by the six [original production] weekends and alphabetically, so I could jump around in the project,” Pearson relates. “Questlove had a strong idea about many of the songs we would feature in the film. He had processed the 36 hours very thoroughly. He and Joseph Patel and I would work from a playlist – a wishlist of songs we wanted to use in the movie. We all chipped in and got a couple of tunes in there.”

Beginning principal photography a few months before the lockdown due to the pandemic, Questlove and Patel interviewed many Harlem Cultural Festival attendees before the mandatory six-month hiatus interrupted the shoot. By September of 2020, production began again to acquire new interviews, but thereafter, such efforts were ad-hoc situations, not conducted in a controlled studio, due to safety protocols.

Additional interviews were conducted via laptop computers, and archival period footage was strategically integrated into the cut. Even though the project started post-production at Radical Media where some 25 edit rooms are all networked to Nexis and Avid, after lockdown began, Pearson worked from home outside of New York City. “They mailed us all hard drives,” he says. “I have a mirror of what’s happening at work.

My assistant in New Hampshire would upload bins and footage to our own transfer site in New Jersey. I ended up cutting the film in my basement with my own hard drive. Late in the process, I was screening the film with the producer and shot my monitor with an iPhone.”

In the early weeks of the new shoots, Questlove regularly came into Pearson’s editing room once or twice a week. “I am used to working with directors, after they’ve shot stuff, they move on to the next thing – I’m flying solo to a certain extent,” he explains. “With Questlove, we would talk big-picture stuff, watch footage together as I was cutting. After lockdown, we would do the same on Zoom; it became much more about posting cuts to our review site.”

In July of 2020, a lengthy screening was held with Questlove and Patel, who, in the succeeding stages of Summer of Soul’s edit, would offer Pearson both verbal and written notes. Further Zoom meetings occurred with the executive producers from RadicalMedia. “We had big note sessions with the wider pool of producers of the contributing production companies who got the film funded,” Pearson relates. “Pages and pages of notes – all of these notes are good, but, ultimately, you need to make the thing that you think is cool; we wanted to make a movie that entertained us. All notes are influential in a good way – they are trying to articulate a feeling they want. You get the spirit of the note.”

After arriving at a rough cut almost three hours long, a consensus among the principal filmmakers led to a goal of getting Summer of Soul down to under two hours. “It’s not just a concert film,” Pearson says, explaining that there were political implications in the timing of the project. “It’s not just about the music, as Gladys Knight says. When we started working on it, prelockdown, pre-George Floyd, it might have been about the music.

As the summer of 2020 unfolded, there are so many parallels to what was happening in 1969. That’s when the film did take a turn toward the socio-political – it’s a larger story than just the concert. The music became less central than trying to tell this coherent story with a solid through line and emotional impact. We didn’t want that to get diffused by watching a 2½-hour concert film.”

In the end, Pearson, Questlove and Patel, plus the key producers at RadicalMedia, aimed to take the audience on an emotional journey that represented a huge shift in music and culture for the African-American community in the landmark year of 1969. “It was the first time anyone used the word Black in The New York Times,” notes Pearson. “The clothing, fashion, style, dashikis – we wanted to tell all of that in this film. I came up with a funny little rule of thumb: If you go to a concert or outdoor festival with a bunch of friends, you are watching the band.

At what point do you want to lean over and start talking to your friends? You want to get the musicality of it: some sense of the intro, eight bars of verse, a chorus, and back to verse. Clear the talking up, so that there’s an ending as well.”

For the uninitiated, Pearson says he would like any potential new audiences for Summer of Soul to see the film for a host of reasons. “This is a movie that will make you feel good: amazing music, intense political moments and a very emotional thread that runs through the film,” he relates. “The emotional thrust is that – unlike the film Woodstock – this footage really sat in someone’s basement for the better part of 50 years.

The attendees who were there, for them to see the footage again is so joyous.”

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