In 2003, film archivist Joe Lauro traveled to Copenhagen to see his longtime friend Karl Knudsen, owner of the jazz label Storyville.
During the visit, Lauro helped Knudsen sift through the records and movies he had accumulated over a long career. They came across a 16mm film copy of a TV show called “Harlem Festival” which was sold to foreign broadcasters in the early 1970s.
“I said, ‘Karl, what is this?’” Lauro recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. “We looked at him, and he told me the story, and I said ‘Wow.'”
What they saw were performances by several of the best soul and gospel music groups of 1969 in front of large crowds in what is now known as Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. They were the highlights of the Harlem Cultural Festival, six outdoor summer weekend concerts featuring an impressive array of talent including Stevie Wonder, the Staple Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, BB King, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach, the 5th Dimension and Nina Simone.
At the time, the concert series was eclipsed by the massive rally 100 miles north of Bethel, New York, where the three-day Woodstock rock music festival closed the New York State Thruway. In the years that followed, the remarkable festival was largely forgotten. That is, until this year, when Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the documentary is a portal to a turbulent era when racial tensions were high while the black community was still on the brink of the 1968 assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The film won the award. Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is a potential Oscar nominee.
The shorthand used by the filmmakers to describe the surprisingly dark footage is that it spent 50 years in the basement of the home of TV director Hal Tulchin, who had filmed the concerts and desperately wanted to present them to a wider audience. public.
But the Harlem Cultural Festival’s journey to the screen was a lot more roundabout and might not have transpired at all without Lauro, although you didn’t see his name in the end credits of “Summer of Soul”.
“The movie is great and it needed to be released,” Lauro said. “But the backstory is really different from the way it was presented.”
Brooklyn-born Lauro, 66, heads Historic Films in Greenport, New York. His company is one of the few small independent archive houses specializing in localization, licensing and management of musical performances in period television shows and films.
While major studios and networks have their own archive facilities or hire large companies such as Iron Mountain Entertainment Services to maintain their content libraries, Historic Films is a repository for the many independently made and owned TV shows and movies. creators or their estates.
Lauro came of age in the 1960s, the musically rich decade in which the country rocked the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the soulful sounds of the legendary Motown and Stax labels. He also developed an affinity for early jazz and blues, collecting 78 rpm records. He has 20,000 recorded before 1935, including rarities by Bessie Smith.
His passion and talent for hunting for rare records served him well in the business he started in 1991. He built his business library by leaning over old copies of TV Guide for information about the musical programs that proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s. He found their owners, often removing tapes and reels of film from storage facilities and advertising agency closets.
After the original films or tapes have been restored and digitized, Historic Films licenses the clips to documentary filmmakers or television producers, sharing the costs with the original owners of the shows. In some cases, it acquires the images directly.
The company manages or owns 50,000 hours of material dating to 1895. The collection includes “Show Time at the Apollo,” a 1955 series featuring artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and “Rainbow Quest,” a program 1960s hosted by folk singer Pete Seeger. It also features “The Red Skelton Show,” CBS ‘longtime variety hour when the Rolling Stones made their first appearance on American television, and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where the Beatles performed in front of an audience. 73 million viewers in 1964..
Lauro also picks up locally produced musical programs in cities across the country, including several specializing in showcasing black artists and gospel music.
Clips from the Historic Films Library have made their way into hundreds of TV shows and documentaries, including Ken Burns’ epic country music and jazz series for PBS; “No Direction Home”, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 opus about Dylan’s career; and original exhibits at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Lauro also wanted to offer performances of the Harlem Cultural Festival to filmmakers. “We keep the material alive,” he said. “When people don’t see these kinds of things, they are forgotten forever.”
After Lauro found the Harlem Festival TV show in Copenhagen, he located Tulchin, whose name appeared on the film’s reel.
The two met for lunch near Tulchin’s home in Bronxville, New York. Lauro has learned that the retired show business veteran, who directed television specials and commercials in the 1960s and 1970s, made 40 hours of videotape at the Harlem festival. None of this had been seen since some of the performances aired on two-hour specials on ABC and CBS in 1969, and several programs offered to foreign broadcasters in the early 1970s.
“When I approached Hal he was so happy that everyone cares,” Lauro said.
In 2004, Tulchin signed an agreement for his images to be represented by Historic Films. Lauro had copies of the tapes from Tulchin’s house trucked to Historic Films, where they were digitized and cataloged. The company began licensing performance clips, including five songs by Simone’s ensemble for a DVD released by Sony.
Lauro also wanted to help Tulchin realize his decades-long dream of turning festival footage into a feature film similar to the 1971 Oscar winner “Woodstock”. Lauro developed a “Harlem Festival” project with Robert Gordon, a writer and filmmaker based in Memphis, Tennessee whose credits include documentaries on Stax Records and the great blues Muddy Waters, and director Morgan Neville, who would win an Oscar for his 2013 documentary “20 Feet of Celebrity.”
The trio raised a budget of $ 450,000 and cut an 11-minute trailer. In 2007, they started pitching companies for a distribution deal. “We have the press,” Lauro said. “We announced it to the world.”
Robert Fyvolent, then a lawyer working for Newmarket Films, recognized the quality and historical significance of the footage and was eager to secure a deal for the company, according to Gordon. Lauro remembers receiving a million dollar offer.
But according to Gordon, Tulchin started making new demands during the negotiations.
As we finalized the feature film deal, Hal said, ‘I don’t just want it as a movie. I want a series of DVDs, ”Gordon said. “He wanted it in the contract. To Fyvolent’s credit, he rolled with the punches and wrote it. But Hal kept throwing axes in the market.”
The contract was never signed. “I didn’t take it well back then,” Gordon said.
Lauro’s impression was that Tulchin wanted more money. But Gordon thought his answer was more complicated.
“I think Hal had a psychological attachment to the desire to make the movie,” Gordon said. “Realizing that desire was less important. He was going to make a lot of money, and he was going to see his dream come true. In my opinion, I think that scared him.”
Tulchin parted ways with Historic Films when his agreement with the company expired in September 2007. He then signed an agreement with Fyvolent, who had left Newmarket, to represent it.
It would take more than a dozen years to land a contract for a Harlem Cultural Festival film, which Tulchin would never see. On Tulchin’s death in 2017, his New York Times obituary detailed the seemingly chimerical effort to secure his “Black Woodstock.”
Earlier this year, Fyvolent and producer David Dinerstein sold the project to Searchlight, with Questlove attached as director for the first time. The Roots drummer is a passionate music expert, and his involvement drew attention to the film’s vintage performances.
In the early stories of how the images hit screens in 2021, Lauro’s role was not mentioned. More recently, however, after a number of social media posts, blogs and newsletters noted the missing link in the history of the Harlem Cultural Festival, filmmakers have begun to recognize Lauro’s role.
“There is no doubt about Joe Lauro’s previous involvement in the footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival concert,” a Searchlight representative said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “Hal Tulchin and others have attempted to make this film for many decades, but unfortunately never succeeded. The filmmakers of ‘Summer of Soul’ did not leave this story outside the narrative of the film to ignore their work with the footage from the concert. In fact, in recent interviews the producers have recognized that anyone who recognizes the value of the footage deserves credit for it. “
The answer should reassure those who have dedicated their careers to preserving pop culture history.
“If Joe hadn’t done what he did at the Harlem Festival, maybe he was ultimately rejected,” said David Peck, owner of San Diego-based archives Reelin ‘in the Years Productions. . “Sometimes the tapes deteriorate beyond repair. Joe has done the world a service, even though he doesn’t get the fruits of that service.”
Lauro, who made a 2014 film about New Orleans music legend Fats Domino, is now working with Gordon on a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, using 100 hours of archival footage from the mid-years. 1960. He does not expect the project to escape him.
“We own the images,” Lauro said.
“SUMMER OF THE SOUL”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing pictures, smoking and drug short material)
Where to watch: Streaming on Hulu