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directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
by Jefferson Robbins There's a double filter of nostalgia on Soul Power, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's assemblage of decades-old footage from the Zaire '74 music festival. The Kinshasa-based event opened the fabled Muhammad Ali-George Foreman bout "The Rumble in the Jungle," where Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight championship--back when the thought that music and sport could change the world seemed less far-fetched. But while the concert showcase captures stirring performances from some of soul music's greatest figures, it still winds up being only half a documentary. The miles of film accumulated in Kinshasa--shot by Albert Maysles, among other notables--sat in storage until it got aired out for Leon Gast's rousing sports doc When We Were Kings in 1996. That piece is a valuable curation, recording exactly how Ali-Foreman (mostly Ali, by seizing the narrative early) energized a nation oppressed first by Belgian colonialism, then by Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorship. That's not to mention how the fight (again, via Ali) reasserted ties between African-Americans and their ancestral continent, and was billed (by Don King) as a triumph for American black pride.
Soul Power offers not one frame of the bout. There's little context for the music festival beyond talk of the upcoming fight and omnipresent, building-high portraits of Mobutu, resplendent in his leopard-skin pillbox hat. You have to turn to When We Were Kings to know who this sartorially-perverse bastard really was, or to learn that before James Brown shook its foundations, the Kinshasa stadium was a site for Mobutu's political imprisonments and public executions. That movie was a better overview--a smattering of festival music, human drama, and history lesson, as well as a reminder that the most beautiful thing about Ali was often his mouth.1 Soul Power would rather just jam.
There's some tight storytelling, though. In the New York offices of Zaire '74, show organizer Stewart Levine has to manage the logistics of equipment transport, coordination with the fight, mercurial African despots, and dozens of superstar egos. ("Part of my job was to keep Bill Withers from killing James Brown on the plane," Levine jokes in his commentary track with Levy-Hinte.) On the ground in Kinshasa, fellow producer Alan Pariser and moneyman Keith Bradshaw, who carried the bag for Liberian financiers, are a delightful Mutt and Jeff: the calm and efficient Pariser can't finish one answer before the irritable Bradshaw jumps in with another pissy question. And Ali, who trained and pressed the flesh in Zaire for weeks before the fight, is shown being Ali, winning over everyone around him. Foreman, whom Ali effectively demonized in the minds of his Zaire audience, appears nowhere in this film.2
Then comes the music, and it's a blast. Although Levy-Hinte found next to no footage of the stadium crowd, this works to Soul Power's advantage, inserting the viewer as audience surrogate. James Brown caps the three-day event with a three-hour explosion that must have been one of the best performances of his career, but in the lead-up we have Withers's quietly devastating "Hope She'll Be Happier," Miriam Makeba's thrilling "Click Song/Qongqothwane" (not to mention her astonishing hair and dress), The Spinners' jubilant "One of a Kind," and Celia Cruz giving one of her most restrained performances ever (with the Fania All-Stars) on "Quimbara." As programmed by Levine and Masekela, the line-up wasn't strictly soul-centric, paying attention to riveting African performers like Zaire's Tabu Ley Rochereau and the costumed dance ensemble Pembe. In the green room at one point, Bradshaw commiserates with Makeba over a last-minute change intended to thin out a block too heavy with African artists that left her cooling her heels. The black American performers are in their prime, seasoned but not soured, never again to be that powerful either in terms of artistry or the force of their political conviction. They're fired with the idealization of a "return" to Africa; more than 35 years later, it's bittersweet to see, and to hear.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Hearing is the thing with Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray release of Soul Power. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track has sufficient delay between front and rear to replicate the reverb of in-person concert attendance, while the feel is rich in all channels. Levine, the industry vet, attributes it in commentary to the 16-track recording, captured live from the control board. Looking phenomenal in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer, the 16mm concert footage has only enough grain to remind you of the period, with lighting that warms each set (probably designed with film in mind by concert tech director Bill McManus). All credit to the amazing cinematography and to Levy-Hinte for a certain deftness in constructing the film. James Brown bestrides this doc like a colossus, and Levy-Hinte chooses to close the piece with Brown's post-concert victory walk back to his dressing room, photographed by Maysles's lingering handheld camera. It ties together music with boxing in a clever bow to seal the package.
Levy-Hinte and Levine's aforementioned yakker is chummy but blithe. Both are aware of the magnitude of the festival and the subsequent documentary projects it spun off, yet much of the significance escapes Levine in particular. The festival "was 100 percent non-political," Levine says, but the musicians he assembled seemed to believe differently. To this day he's not sure why the bleacher seats of the Kinshasa stadium were fenced with barbed wire. He must not have seen When We Were Kings. Deleted scenes feature standard-def excised performances by fetching Zairean/Congolese singer Abeti Masikini; Sister Sledge, then an unknown group that auditioned for Levine in his office and won a spot on the bill; James Brown again, on "Try Me;" and the Pembe Dance Troupe, going for broke. Startup previews include Sony's ad for its own Blu-ray catalogue and BD Live, the Michael Jackson necrofest This Is It, and It Might Get Loud. The disc additionally offers BD Live interactivity, but damned if I could get it to spin up. Originally published: August 31, 2010.
93 minutes; PG-13; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Spanish DD 5.1; English, English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Sony
1. Demerits to When We Were Kings for using the great Miriam Makeba as some kind of juju-queen: whenever the event or its principals encounter some particularly "African" obstacle, the editors cut to one of the witchier moments in her performance. return
2. Also little seen: Hugh Masekela, Levine's producing partner, Makeba's husband, and the man most responsible for exporting African pop to the wider world. return