Archival Spaces 274
Restoring Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)
Uploaded 23 July 2021
The Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 has been called “the Black Woodstock.” Held over a period of six Sundays in what is now called Marcus Garvey Park at 125th Street in Harlem, the Festival drew over 300,000 people and featured some of the biggest music acts of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Temptations’ David Ruffin, and Mongo Santamaria. A fantastic new documentary, Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by the musician-disc jockey-record producer Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, not only captures the spirit of that signature event but also contextualizes it within the African-American struggle for civil rights and an emerging “Black is Beautiful” cultural identity, adding modern interviews with participants on and off stage, as well as news film footage.
As the documentary makes clear, structural racism in America’s entertainment industry kept the video footage from receiving its full due, even though many of the acts had had huge crossover hits that summer. At least four one-hour (with commercials) compilations of the Harlem Festival were broadcast at the time. Produced/hosted by Tony Lawrence and produced/directed by Hal Tulchin with Jambe Prods., Ltd., one show was seen on the New York CBS affiliate WNEW-TV and CBS-KOOL-TV in Phoenix in July 1969. ABC broadcast a second show in September 1969 on WLS-TV in Chicago and probably some other markets, including Dallas, Miami, and the South. A compilation was also shown in Europe, distributed by Storyville Films. Thus, while the film states that the videotapes remained unseen and unheard for over 50 years, rotting away in a basement until producer Robert Fyvolent acquired the more than forty hours of footage, the actual story of its “discovery” and preservation is more complicated.
The 3rd Harlem Cultural Festival, sponsored by Maxwell House, was recorded on 2” Quad videotape in summer 1969 by television director Hal Tulchin who put up his own money. Tulchin hired Tele-Tape Productions to supply a mobile recording truck, three Marconi Mark VII four Plumbicon tube color cameras. One tube each for the red, blue, green, and black & white, as well as a Norelco PCP-70 portable color camera with three Plumbicon tubes, red, green, and blue for the hand-held shots of the stage and audience. All cameras were hard-wired to the truck. The Marconi cameras had their own vertical and horizontal aperture correction design, BBC qualified lens, producing a very high quality and detailed picture in both luminance and color. Filling the entire 4.2 Mhz NTSC bandwidth with information.
The Tele-Tape truck had a full control room and two High Band Quad machines. The director created two simulations live versions. The first 2” machine recorded a line-cut of the performances on stage from the four cameras, as well as mixed audio on the audio track and ambient audio from the audience on the Cue track. The second Quad recorded an ISO cut, which was a camera shooting the crowd from the perspective of the performers. There were microphones on stage picking up crowd noise that was recorded on the main audio track. Audio from the production board mixer was recorded on the cue track from the Norelco, and ISO audio straight from the production board mixer since multi-track location recording was not yet possible. On high-profile performances, both Quad machines were recording the line cut and mixer audio as a backup. Six reels of 90-minute Quad tape were shot per day.
Hal Tulchin tried for years unsuccessfully to find financial backers for his “Black Woodstock,” which he had copyrighted. In the early 1980s, Tulchin dubbed each of the Quad masters onto 1” Type C” on Ampex VPR-2’s, using 60 min tapes and small spot reels. For some reason he didn’t use 90 min 1” tape stock, thus breaking up the original reels. The quality of the analog dubs was also lower at 300 lines. The tapes remained stored in Tulchin’s Bronxville basement for decades.
In 2004, Joe Lauro of Historic Films licensed all the footage and actually distributed clips, e.g. of Nina Simone, for several years and also teamed up filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon to create a documentary but failed to find adequate financial backing. One company they pitched was Newmarket films, whose lawyer was Robert Fyvolent; he personally bought an option for the footage from Tulchin shortly after. In 2011 Tulchin made a new pitch, working with Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) to sell the project. In June of 2012, a sample of the 1” tapes was sent to DuArt Restoration for evaluation, but their Video technician, Maurice Schechter, determined these tapes had baked in quad artifacts, so the original quads were pulled from Tulchin’s basement. Fourteen of the 2” tapes and log sheets were sent for transfer and restoration. The Quads were found to have incredible detail, resolution, saturation, and sound, but eventually, Jigsaw walked away. Tulchin died in August 2017 without having realized his dream of a “Black Woodstock” film. In October 2015, DuArt Restoration closed down and the fourteen original quad tapes apparently ended in the dumpster.
Before Tulchin died in September 2017, Fyvolent exercised his option and formed Mass Distraction Media to produce a documentary, probably bringing in Joe Kamen and RadicalMedia soon after, since that company asked the AMIA Listserv for suggestions to do transfer work on 2” Quads. Since Schechter Engineering had purchased DuArt’s video lab, Maurice Schechter and Bill Seery of Mercer Media were contracted to transfer all surviving 2” and 1”, baking and cleaning the quads to mitigate any back coat issues and from the decomposed foam seals of the Scotch Aqua shipping cases. The 1″ tapes had the Scotch flange removed. The analog video output of the quad was fed into a Snell and Wilcox decoder, which created a 10bit uncompressed SDI stream. This was a huge challenge since detail from the 4 tube cameras can create a mirage of visual artifacts, dot crawl, cross color, and loss of resolution. After several more steps to capture the audio. the SDI signal was captured by AJA to a 10bit uncompressed interlaced NTSC / 24bit 48Khz PCM quicktime file. Unfortunately, some of the performances had been on the lost 14 tapes. Fortunately, Schechter found the hard drives from the 2011 transfers and donated them to Radical. At this point director Questlove was brought in to supervise color timing and editing.
A decision was made to finish the film in 4K at 24p, blending down the 30 frame NTSC ( AKA 29.97 ) of the original digitization to 24 Frames, while keeping the 4×3 aspect ratio, thereby creating some digital artifacts. The producers apparently wanted the feel of photochemical film, giving it a “more vintage film” look that contrasted with the modern interviews and buttressed the filmmaker’s thesis that the historical event had been willfully neglected for decades.
Make no mistake, Questlove and the producers have created an extremely moving document that itself becomes evidence for the institutionalized racism suffered by people of color in this country while celebrating the unbelievable joy of music. Nevertheless, one can hope that the unedited and correctly transferred footage of this amazing event will one day become available in all its visual glory.
Thanks to John H. Mitchell Television Curator Mark Quigley for help on researching this blog, to Joe Lauro for an interview, and to Maurice Schechter who spent hours explaining the technical aspects.