[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
“Soul Power,” carefully constructed with outtakes from “When We Were Kings,” Leon Gast’s lauded 1996 documentary about the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, risks the undeserved fate of being viewed as a mere supplement to the film for which its footage was originally intended. This would be a shame, because this new film—as “directed” by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, one of the editors of Gast’s original project—stands on its own as a vibrant verité record of Zaïre ‘74, a three-day music festival organized in tandem with the Rumble and having as much to do with bridging the worlds of African-American and African identity as did the fight and its symbolic setting.
“Black Power is sought everywhere, but it is already realized in Zaïre,” proclaims a sign featured in the film, and each moment of “Soul Power” attests to the fervent pride of the country, the performers, the organizers, and one very controversial and enthusiastic pugilist in taking part in an event created to joyously celebrate that power. As conceived by South African musician Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine, Zaïre ’74 was quickly incorporated by Don King as the official lead-in to his enormously hyped boxing match, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that both events’ amalgamation of music, dance, athletics, and politics signaled an international “black culture” whose peak moment of influence and creative had more than arrived.
Performances by B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Danny “Big Black” Ray, and James Brown are shown for brief moments in “When We Were Kings,” but “Soul Power” is an out-and-out concert film, preceded by chaotic preparations for the event and featuring scenes underlining its ebullient theme of the bonds of African heritage: jam sessions breaking out among performers on the thirteen-hour flight to Zaïre, saxophonists playing among street children, and Ali’s inspired declarations of black liberation. Whereas contemporary interviews situated “When We Were Kings” in the past tense, Levy-Hinte almost entirely eschews such devices, making his film all the more infectious by entrenching it in the tense political climate of the time. Thirty-five years may have passed since Zaïre ’74, but the puissance of Ali countering a reporter’s plea for unity by angrily stating “We’re not all brothers!” or Miriam Makeba’s mocking of colonial incomprehension of “The Click Song” remains startlingly alive.
The concert itself—gorgeously photographed by Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, and Roderick Young—is simply all-star caliber. The Spinners rock sweaty old school R&B, Bill Withers evokes worlds of feeling with the most minimal of guitar plucks, B.B. pours his heart into a form that would soon become petrified into kitschy nostalgia by the Blues Brothers, and it’s all captured in glorious close-ups and immaculate cutting. And then, on top of everyone and everything else, there’s Brown, the only artist given more than one song of screen time. (The film’s short length, at least music-wise, is its only failing.) Outfitted in a green, skin-tight costume with a sequined faux boxing belt containing the initials “GFOS;” stout, mustachioed, and utterly possessed; Soul Brother #1 is nothing less than the musical equivalent of Ali, loud-mouthed, self-aggrandizing, and completely mesmerizing. On stage Brown brags he can’t play his best songs live because “The best of James Brown is yet to come,” and the joining of such chutzpah with his call for black empowerment in the performed “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” forms the backbone of an act of spastic yet graceful dance moves and from-the-gut yelps that could easily be described as phenomenal if it weren’t so typical of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business at his unmatched peak. Just as Ali used his outsized ego and transcended sport to call attention to racial politics, so did Brown with music, and in Zaïre ’74 and the Rumble in the Jungle both of these greatests proved that “the fight” wasn’t limited to a single ring-bound bout.