“This is the first time I’ve been here in daylight,” Questlove said, reclining in the middle of a purple couch on Paisley Park’s soundstage. Fair enough: Since Prince passed in 2016, Paisley parties have started and ended much earlier than they used to. But they’re still worth the hike out to Chanhassen, especially when they feature a renowned guest.
As far as famous Prince nerds go, Questlove is king. The Roots drummer, born Ahmir Thompson, has performed dozens of DJ sets featuring Prince’s music. He has visited Paisley Park several times since Prince first invited him in 2000. On Sunday, he returned to Prince’s home for a screening of the incredible movie Summer of Soul — plus a dance party and brief Q&A — for about 300 in attendance.
Summer of Soul … (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) revives Hal Tulchin‘s full-color footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week concert series held in 1969. That summer, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and many other Black icons performed in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park for a total of about 300,000 attendees. Witnesses have described it a hugely important moment for Black pride and joy. But Woodstock, the festival that took place the same summer and entered theaters as a music documentary in 1970, long overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival in popular memory.
In directing Summer of Soul, Thompson sought to canonize the Harlem Cultural Festival and ask why it had been forgotten. COVID-19 slowed down production, and Thompson admits he was “fully panicking” for the first seven or eight weeks of the pandemic. On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, and the country sprang into protest. Once Thompson saw the parallels between 2020 and the civil rights movement, he told Variety, “It felt like this movie was writing itself.”
To make Summer of Soul, Thompson had to pare 40 hours of footage down to two hours. At Paisley, he told interviewer Andrea Swensson, formerly of The Current, that he spent five months watching “nothing but the Harlem Cultural Festival.” The footage looped on approximately seven different monitors around his home as he tried to soak it in. “Actually, the person who gave me the idea of a visual aquarium was Prince,” he said. “He would always have either Finding Nemo or Black Orpheus playing at his house or in concert.”
Prince’s work showed Thompson how context and music shape each other. “His entire canon sounded different to me after April 21, 2016,” Thompson said, citing the date of Prince’s death. Summer of Soul juxtaposes the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy with Nina Simone’s performance of David Nelson’s poem “Are You Ready.” “Are you ready, Black people?” she asks, her feet moving and shoulders hunched toward the crowd. “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings? Are you ready to kill if necessary?” Elsewhere in the film, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples perform King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
“That concert was like a rose coming through cement,” one attendee says in Summer of Soul. No, the Black people who spoke on the moon landing in Summer of Soul did not think it was responsible financial stewardship, just as many people in the present would prefer that billionaires’ fortunes fund hunger and climate solutions, not rocket rides. No, the organizers of the Harlem Cultural Festival didn’t trust police officers to keep the peace, hiring the Black Panthers to do security instead. And no, the civil rights movement did not solve racism. But over six weeks in the summer of 1969, Black people partied and danced and ate chicken in Harlem. And as attendee Musa Jackson says in the documentary’s last clip, it was beautiful.
After the movie’s credits, those with VIP tickets ($75 versus $50 GA) ambled into the NPG Music Club, where Questlove waited behind the decks. He said he could fall back on his typical Prince DJ set. But after discussing Prince’s creativity, he felt moved “to have a jam session — to wing it.” So off we flew, through a live Prince cover of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” and the swing of “Strange Relationship.” Questlove hit a groove while playing a “D.M.S.R.” rehearsal bootleg, then “Controversy.” By the time the party ended around midnight, it was dark outside Paisley Park once again.
Up next in Paisley Park’s cinema series, Under the Cherry Moon will play on Nov. 20. Up next for Questlove, he and his team will produce a Sly and the Family Stone documentary.
Photos by Adam Meyer