‘Summer of Soul’: Producer who grew up in Tampa talks about new movie

The award-winning documentary opens in theaters nationwide and on Hulu on Friday.
Robert Fyvolent and his wife Brittany at a screening of "Summer of Soul" in Los Angeles. Fyvolent, who is a producer of the film, grew up in Tampa and will be at the screening at Tampa Theatre.
Robert Fyvolent and his wife Brittany at a screening of "Summer of Soul" in Los Angeles. Fyvolent, who is a producer of the film, grew up in Tampa and will be at the screening at Tampa Theatre. [ Courtesy of Robert Fyvolent ]
Published July 1, 2021|Updated July 1, 2021

Tampa Bay gets a taste of Hollywood on Friday, when the new documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) opens at Tampa Theatre with a free block party.

The film reveals the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series that took place over six weekends in the summer of 1969 at Mount Morris Park in New York City, the same summer as Woodstock. The festival, nicknamed “Black Woodstock,” was formed as a celebration of Black music and culture. It was filmed, but the footage has gone largely unseen until now.

That footage was captured by Hal Tulchin, who shelved it for decades after failed efforts to get it produced. It was resurrected by two Hollywood producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, who approached Tulchin in 2006 (Tulchin died in 2017). Fyvolent, an entertainment lawyer based in Los Angeles, grew up in Tampa, and will be at Tampa Theatre for opening night.

Summer of Soul is directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his directorial debut. Thompson is a member of hip-hop band the Roots and is the musical director of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson attends a special screening of "Summer of Soul" at The Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in New York.
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson attends a special screening of "Summer of Soul" at The Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in New York. [ JASON MENDEZ | Invision/AP ]

The stunning lineup of performers in the movie includes Stevie Wonder (in a rare performance playing the drums), Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples and Nina Simone.

Musician Sly Stone is featured in "Summer of Soul," the directorial debut of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.
Musician Sly Stone is featured in "Summer of Soul," the directorial debut of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.

The movie also includes interviews with prominent entertainment figures including Chris Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as reminiscent segments with Staples and other people who were in attendance. It documents the cultural revolution happening for Black people during that summer.

Summer of Soul premiered in January at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it won two documentary awards: the Audience Award and U.S. Grand Jury Prize.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Fyvolent to ask about his role in the film, ahead of his visit to Tampa Theatre on Friday.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

How did you become involved in this project?

So I worked for a long time as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, and I worked for the Walt Disney Company for a while, and Sony Pictures, and I was working for an entertainment production company and distributor called Newmarket Films. Probably about 12 years ago, a friend from college was working on a music project. I was giving him some legal advice ... and he told me about this footage he had heard about. I just became fascinated by it, and started doing a little bit of research and ended up tracking down Hal Tulchin, who was the gentleman who originally directed the footage in 1969. ... I went out to New York to meet him, and he started telling me about the footage and I was just kind of blown away by it. From that point on, I started working on it and decided to try to put it together.

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More recently, there were a couple times the project almost happened and then it didn’t come together. I joke with people saying, “Thank God, none of those other versions of the project ever happened,” because this one, we had the right team, and the film was the perfect timing I think for where we are in the country.

Why did you tap Questlove to be the director?

I was working with a producing partner named David Dinerstein, who was a colleague and friend for a number of years, and we started working on it together. We just started thinking about who the right director would be for the project. And we had Questlove at the top of our list. We were both fans of the Roots and we felt like the film needed the right storyteller. He’s a music nerd on one hand, so he has a great working knowledge. We knew he would love these artists.

In an interview, Questlove mentioned that he was also unaware of the festival’s existence. What was his reaction?

When we met with him, he pretty much had the same reaction we had when we first saw the footage. I think like everybody, you don’t believe it at first, it was such an incredible lineup. And you have to show somebody the evidence, and that’s what we did. We met with him backstage at the Tonight Show and showed him a little bit of it, and he just couldn’t wait to see more.

Was it your suggestion to screen the movie in Tampa?

Searchlight (Pictures) is the theatrical distributor, which is now a Disney Company, but when we first started talking to them, and they were going over cities, you know, I put in my two cents and said, I grew up here, I want the film to play here. I think they would have had it in Tampa anyway. I mean, the film is going out on 650 screens tomorrow. But I was pushing for the Tampa Theatre. I grew up here, my dad was born in Tampa. He’s 92 and he went to that theater as a kid. So I’m bringing him tomorrow and I know it’s going to kind of be a thrill for him as well.

What is the main takeaway from this film?

We were very specific about not wanting to make comparisons in the movie to what was happening in the country now. We feel like the film speaks for itself. But I think the takeaway is that you can watch the film, and sort of gauge where we are as a country, seeing it through the lens of 1969. There were so many parallels and things that we saw as we were watching things unfold in the country, with George Floyd and all of that, and a sense that maybe we’re not as far along as we should be on a lot of fronts.

Sometimes people hear “documentary” and they’re like, “oh, I’m going to sit in a theater, or I’m going to watch it on Hulu” or wherever it is, and it’s going to be an educational experience. This is a joyous movie, at the end of the day. The music is just really fun. People have so far been just so entertained by it.

There’s a part of the film that shows the announcement of the Apollo 11 moon landing being booed by festival attendees.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is that moon landing sequence. It was really fascinating because, as remarkable as it was to have found this footage, we had an amazing team that was putting together archives and other things that would help put the movie and our footage into context. And we found a clip that had never aired of Walter Cronkite talking about the moon landing, and then cutting to a correspondent in Harlem at the festival. So that footage itself was almost as remarkable as the footage we had. You really get to hear from people in Harlem, about how they felt about the moon landing in it. They all express the same thing that I think most people felt about it at the time, which was it was a remarkable achievement, but I think they also felt this was a lot of money, and there are issues and problems in our community that aren’t being addressed. It’s hard to watch it and not feel like that’s a fair criticism.

The film won two major Sundance Film Festival documentary awards. Do you remember what you were doing when you heard the news?

Well, it’s an interesting thing, because we found out just weeks before Sundance that the entire festival was going to be virtual. And we were apprehensive about; do we show this movie in a virtual setting? Because it’s such a movie that feels like it should be experienced as a community or (in a) theater, but we decided to move forward with it. The audience reaction was great. And then on some level, we thought, maybe this worked even better, because more people got to see it than they might have at Sundance. I was home like everybody else when I found out and, obviously, it was thrilling.

If you go

Tampa Theatre will celebrate opening night of the new documentary with a free Franklin Street Block Party from 5-7pm in front of the movie palace. Summer of Soul plays at 7:30 p.m. $8.50-$11.50. 711 N Franklin St. 813-274-8286.