The true story of the ‘lost footage’ from Summer of Soul
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
“In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. Over 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was free to all. The festival was filmed. But after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.”
These are the statements on the cards at the start the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning directorial debut, which he based on footage of the referenced Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969—the third in what was meant to be an annual event.
These dramatic declarations certainly help to push the film’s racially-charged narrative—except that the footage was not sitting in a basement for 50 years. Joe Lauro of Historic Films became aware of the footage in 2003, went on a mission to find it, and by early 2004, got it out of said basement, belonging to Hal Tulchin, who filmed the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Lauro, president of Historic Films, is an archivist of 37 years. He looks for long-forgotten television shows, films and caches of raw film footage with the aim of excavating said material, restoring it, digitizing it and licensing it to third-party filmmakers, museums, and anyone else who might need the footage for their projects.
While in Denmark in 2003, Lauro screened a 16mm syndication print of a television airing of parts of the Harlem Cultural Festival. The print belonged to Karl Emil Knudsen of Storyville Records. Knudsen informed Lauro that it had aired in Denmark and other European countries. Lauro did his customary scouring of old issues of TV Guide, found the broadcast of the program in the United States and tracked down Tulchin, retired and living in Bronxville.
“We had lunch at the Cornelia Street Café and shortly thereafter I signed an exclusive deal with [Tulchin] to get the Harlem Cultural Festival library from his basement,” recalls Lauro from his crammed office at Historic Films. He shuffles through his files and produces the representational agreement he signed with Tulchin dated January 1, 2004.
“We sent our truck over and picked up all the 1-inch submasters, made from the original 2-inch masters,” he continues. “We transferred it into a contemporary format. We logged every performance and where it was on the film. We put it on the database. We advertised it. There was major press for it. We made the footage available to the world and it was used in several projects, most notably the Nina Simone Sony release.”
Lauro also insisted that Tulchin copyright all of the reels. He filed and paid for the copyright registration on Tulchin’s behalf with the Library of Congress. He also sent a complete set of the 40+ hours of Harlem Cultural Festival footage to the Library of Congress as part of the institution’s requirement for copyright filing. Always the archivist, Lauro has several documented communications with Tulchin on hand that verify everything he is saying.
“Many deserve recognition for understanding the value of this footage at a time when many others didn’t,” say Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein and Joseph Patel, the producers of Summer of Soul. They also acknowledge that, “For a brief period of time, Joe Lauro and his company Historic Films had an agreement with Mr. Tulchin to license the latter’s footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival.”
It definitely aired on TV
It was during this “brief period of time,” which was four years, that Lauro teamed up with respected documentarians Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, who put together a proposal for a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival and cut an 11-minute trailer to shop their film. They went to Newmarket Films, where they met with the aforementioned Fyvolent.
“He got it right away,” says Gordon of Fyvolent. “He knew something about it, so when it appeared, he knew to grab it. We started barreling down the road toward a contract. Fyvolent was great to work with because Tulchin was not great to work with. I realize Hal Tulchin is being made into a saint for capturing all this great material, and I don’t dispute that, but our deal fell apart because Hal Tulchin didn’t want to see this thing made. That was a real drag.”
By all accounts, Tulchin had a lot of plans for his footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival. At the center of these was creating four thematic episodes from the performances that took places over six weekends, which would air as televisions specials.
Summer of Soul producers say, “Verified TV specials of only the first weekend aired the summer of 1969 in a handful of local markets, including New York and Milwaukee. There have been reports that claim the special may have aired elsewhere but our research, and [Tulchin]’s archives, can only confirm those two markets.”
The producers’ statement goes against the film’s own subtitle which is, “…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.” It was not only televised in the abovementioned markets, but in at least 15 major markets across the United States, both the first and the second weekends. Lauro verifies this with copies of articles, interviews, reviews and previews from established newspapers in those states.
Says Lauro referring to the Harlem Cultural Festival’s charismatic organizer, Tony Lawrence, “He was trying to do another festival the next year, so he was explaining the success of the one he had just had. It was seen by a lot of people. It definitely did not just fall through the cracks.”
You can find these write-ups of the broadcast in the Detroit Free Press (Michigan), Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (Alaska), Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Hawaii), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), Tampa Bay Times (Florida), The Arizona Republic (Arizona), The News Leader (Virginia), The Star Press (Indiana), The Times (Louisiana), The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma) and The Fresno Bee The Republican (California), where CBS pre-empted “Carol Burnett Presents the Jimmie Rodgers Show” to air the festival. It is CBS affiliates that are airing the first weekend of the festival, June 29th, 1969 which features, among others, 5th Dimension, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, James Earl Jones, and reports of 50,000 people in attendance.
The second weekend of the festival, July 13th 1969 (the six weekends of Harlem Cultural Festival were not consecutive), aired on local ABC affiliates in Illinois and Indiana. The Chicago Tribune ran an interview with Lawrence and The Tribune in Indiana ran a detailed preview that put the program in context. This weekend makes up the “gospel episode,” which features, among others, Mahalia Jackson, Staples Singers, Jesse Jackson, with a reported 70,000 people in attendance.
Historic Films has archived an extensive videotaped interview with Tulchin from 2005 where he speaks about the Harlem Cultural Festival, the atmosphere of the time and the filming of the events. In the interview, Tulchin recalls licensing two episodes—including the one filmed the second weekend—to ABC’s worldwide syndication, which, he says, were put in 30-odd countries—which is why Knudsen had a print in Denmark, where Lauro first saw it.
What the producers offer in response is, “The opening text card in the film states how the footage hadn’t been seen in the 50 years since then.” But it was. Lauro can remember at least six productions to which he licensed footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival between 2004 and 2008. Besides the Nina Simone video, clips were licensed to the United Negro College Fund and Time Life Music. Granted, even collectively, all those licenses don’t add up to the tremendousness of Summer of Soul, but people did see the footage, at least in part.
As far as the languishing of the tapes in Tulchin’s basement, if the tapes in reference are specifically the 2-inch masters, then yes, technically, they were in the basement, but their contents were not. The producers say, “The filmmaking team digitized all the tapes from scratch, both the 2” masters and the 1” submasters but knew they would use the 2” masters for the cleanest available picture and sound.”
Lauro clarifies, “2″ tapes are extremely difficult to work with. There are very few places that have the ancient machines and expertise to play them. The 1″ tapes that we pulled from [Tulchin’s] basement were also obsolete but we did have machines at Historic Films to play them. Those 1” tapes were exact duplicates of the 2″ tapes and also of high quality. We always knew that the 2″s would be transferred once we had the financing and began production on the documentary. [Tulchin] was totally on board for that.”
Hype being hype
Which brings things back to the documentary being shopped in 2006. As Lauro mentioned, the unearthing of this footage received coverage in major publications, including Billboard in 2007 (which Lauro has copies of). This is in addition to the Smithsonian Magazine article dated February 1, 2007, which is readily available online, and has been referenced in various articles about Summer of Soul.
“Anybody who’s got access to the internet could do a quick Google search and find out that these efforts were going on all this time,” says Gordon in response to the marketing surrounding Summer of Soul. “What you’re talking about is hype. I don’t have any problem with hype being hype. There’s nothing really wrong with that. The only thing that’s wrong with it is that [Lauro], who did the sleuth work and the psychological work on Tulchin to get him to agree, and then the physical work of retrieving the tapes from the basement has been written out of the story because, in fact, Historic Films is a lynchpin in the survival of this footage.”
Since the emergence of the press surrounding Summer of Soul, Lauro has tried to bring attention to his part in its existence. He wrote a lengthy comment detailing his role in the discovery and retrieval of the Harlem Cultural Festival footage in response to the June 30 2021 New York Times article “With ‘Summer of Soul,’ Questlove Wants to Fill a Cultural Void.” The newspaper did not print his comment, but did include a correction to the article on July 9, 2021 stating: “An earlier version misstated the condition of the concert footage kept in Hal Tulchin’s basement all along. Before Tulchin’s death, it had been digitized by Joe Lauro, though the original footage was used in the documentary.”
Lauro posted the full text of his comment on his Facebook profile and upon the request of his friends, made the post public so it could be shareable. At the time of this article, it has been shared 91 times.
There are distinct similarities between the 11-minute trailer Gordon cut in the mid-2000s, its accompanying proposal and Summer of Soul. The themes of the political climate, civil rights and the Black Panther Movement are also the ones that Tulchin speaks about in the archived interviews at Historic Films. Gordon—who, at the time of this article had not yet seen Summer of Soul—is not bothered by this in the least.
“Raw footage wants to tell a story and it’s the director’s job to hear the song that it’s trying to sing,” says Gordon. “If Questlove’s movie is similar to what I imagined, I think that’s because we both heard a similar song in the footage. I’m sure there are differences between what he did and what I would have done—the channeling, like timbre, is an individual thing.”
“Questlove is a great talent and it was a brilliant idea to use him to bring the footage to a contemporary audience,” concurs Lauro.
There are countless discrepancies in when and how Fyvolent was first made aware of the Harlem Cultural Festival footage. In AP News on June 30, 2021, he says it was 2012 when a friend told him about the footage and Fyvolent himself tracked down Tulchin and that Tulchin “led Fyvolent to the tapes in the basement.” Three weeks later on July 22, 2021 in Marketplace Fyvolent says he met Tulchin in 2006, but not how they met.
The producers confirm that Fyvolent męt with Tulchin in 2006 (although they do not mention that Gordon was the one negotiating the deal or Lauro’s involvement) to discuss getting involved in turning the footage into a documentary. But, they say, Fyvolent had a hard time getting the project off the ground until they brought on Questlove to direct the film at which point, “the pieces came together.”
“More than anything, we knew this was a story from a Black perspective,” say the producers (which was also Gordon’s and Lauro’s and before them, Tulchin’s position). “We knew early on that this couldn’t just be a concert film. There was too much happening in Harlem at the time, and too much happening in 1969 in this country, to simply have this be all musical performances. The creative and storytelling of this documentary came from Questlove, editor Josh Pearson and the producing team.”
Gordon is also not bothered by the idea of the film saying the footage was overlooked and now it’s found. Once again, he chalks that up to hype. But the implications that the footage didn’t appear for racist reasons does bother him. Tulchin may not have been able to secure a deal by himself, but Gordon was able to do that for him very quickly with Fyvolent.
It was Tulchin who was sabotaging himself. Says Gordon, “As soon as we started finalizing this contract with Fyvolent, Tulchin started getting squirrely and antsy. When he realized we were going to fulfill his dream, he started throwing curve balls. Fyvolent rolled with it. I respected Fyvolent because he just kept saying okay, and we would write it into the contract. I believe that Tulchin had a psychological connection to those tapes in the basement—not the tapes, the tapes in the basement. They represented something to him and he couldn’t let go.”
Coincidentally, after the initial attempt to get this film made in 2006, and again in 2012, it’s only after Tulchin’s death in 2017 that Summer of Soul started to get going. In the 10 years since the ending of his representational agreement with Lauro until his death, Tulchin was not able to license any of the footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival as, based on what he told Lauro, it was optioned.
“I’m delighted that the film got made,” says Lauro. “When it comes down to it, the only way that we’re going to know about this material is that people see it. Otherwise it gets lost to history.”