Why ‘Summer of Soul' is the film Jeff Lurie had to make


Jeffrey Lurie had never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival.

The Eagles' owner had no idea about the forgotten R&B and soul concerts that took place over six steamy weekends in Upper Manhattan's Mount Morris Park in the summer of 1969. And certainly didn’t know about the 40 hours of lost film footage that had been discovered by a music archivist in a basement.

As soon as Lurie heard about it and learned about the group led by Philly native Questlove hoping to put together a documentary chronicling those iconic concerts, he knew he had to be involved.

It was Marie Therese-Guirgis, head of production for Lurie’s Play/Action Films, who first told Lurie about the fledgling film project.

“She’s always on the lookout for projects she thinks I would find interesting,” Lurie said in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia Wednesday. “She’s the one who discovered the project, and she immediately called me to tell me about it.

“I had no idea that these concerts even existed. I was very familiar with all the music – Sly and the Family Stone, 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder – but I had never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. As soon as she told me about the footage that had been discovered and the project, I knew it was something I would be interested in supporting both financially and creatively.”

And that’s how Lurie’s involvement in "Summer of Soul" began.

Play/Action, Lurie’s socially conscious production company, decided to take on the project, and on Sunday "Summer of Soul" was named best documentary at the Academy Awards.

"Summer of Soul," released on Hulu and in theaters on July 2, was the directorial debut of Philadelphia native Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer of The Roots and noted author, songwriter, producer and music historian.

“I had never met Questlove,” Lurie said. “But I had been an admirer of his for a long time. He’s got high integrity, very smart, focused ... he’s awesome.”

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Although the film works on one level as a concert film featuring some of the biggest R&B and soul stars of the 1960s and 1970s, it goes far beyond that and really functions as a celebration of the music, art, fashion and culture of the Black and Latino community during a tumultuous time in the U.S.

The music is wonderful and right in Lurie’s wheelhouse, but what really attracted him to the project was the way Questlove had a larger message – that even though these concerts were held in 1969, very little has changed for minorities and marginalized people in the last half-century.

“It was really clear to me having grown up in the 1960s that there are so many parallels from the 1960s to what’s going on today,” the 70-year-old Lurie said. “When we screened 'Summer of Soul' for the team (in August), that’s something that Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod talked about, just how many parallels there are between what was going on during the late 1960s to what’s happening now. So many of the same challenges, the same problems and the same difficulty finding answers.

“It’s a credit to Questlove that the movie was really able to convey those parallels, and I think that’s why it resonated with so many people.”

"Summer of Soul" has won virtually every imaginable award for documentaries – more than three dozen at last count, including best documentary at the Sundance Festival, Critics’ Choice Awards, Producers Guild and now the Oscars.

And it's so much more than a concert film.

With footage of the crowd interspersed with the performances, "Summer of Soul" truly captures the spirit of the neighborhood, the fashion of the day, the joy that music brought to the Black and Latino community during a time of tremendous oppression.

“Seeing the crowd, the people … it’s so beautiful,” Lurie said. “It was such a family atmosphere and the shots of the crowd really show the community in a positive way that was never really (seen) back then. That's one of my favorite things about it."

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