Directed by: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Starring: Muhammad Ali, James Brown, B.B. King, Don King, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s verité-style documentary Soul Power is assembled from the same footage that made up Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Both films are spawned from the same event—the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali (the “Rumble in the Jungle”)—but their purposes are hardly interchangeable. Gast’s film is about the fight; Levy-Hinte’s is about the three-day music festival that was to have directly preceded that fight. The operative term is “was,” because an injury to Foreman’s eye delayed the fight for six weeks, but it was too late to reschedule the concert, which went on without the fight, leaving it a kind of orphan event that had largely drifted into obscurity until this film 35 years after the fact.
The idea behind Soul Power is to capture both something of the concert and the sense of the event—the globalization of which it spoke with the meeting of two musical worlds in Zaire. The fact that almost none of the African-American performers had ever actually been to Africa was, after all, part of the draw. It made the whole thing a kind of weird cultural exchange—one made even weirder when James Brown is told that all the French-speaking natives of Zaire already know all his songs, and in English. All this is fascinating—as are the interpolations of Muhammad Ali in full motor-mouth mode—but it comes equipped with a downside, especially given Soul Power‘s brisk 93-minute running time. Let’s face it, the draw for this movie—the real reason we’re here—is the concert itself. We’re here for James Brown, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers etc., and Soul Power is about a third over before it gets to the concert we’ve been waiting for (exempting some footage of Brown at the very beginning of the film).
Of course, the moment the Spinners take the stage performing “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” chances are that you’ll completely forget the wait and just settle into the music. The concert footage itself is stunningly shot and edited, though it too has the problem of there just not being enough of it. It’s great to see the Spinners, but for only one song? And Bill Withers getting a single song (and it’s not even “Grandma’s Hands” or “Lean on Me”) is also just not enough. B.B. King outlines a whole playlist, but we never get anywhere near it. You may not notice it while you’re watching the film, but when you get to the end—and you know it’s the end because you know that James Brown closes the show—there’s an inescapable sense of “that’s it?” I suppose a case could be made that it’s wiser to leave you wanting more—to send you on the way to the record store after you leave the theater—but in retrospect it’s hard not to wish that maybe there was a little less of Muhammad Ali promoting himself and a little more of the concert.
All the same, what there is in Soul Power is choice—and a lot of it is music we don’t hear much of today. If nothing else, the film serves to remind us of that second fact. It might even encourage us to do something about it. If that’s so, the movie has performed its function and then some. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language.