Movie News & Reviews

'Soul Power': Music does the talking

Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the heavyweight championship of the world in Kinshasa, Zaire, in the epic 1974 "rope-a-dope" battle known as the Rumble in the Jungle, documented in Leon Gast's film When We Were Kings.

But Gast's masterful 1996 film told only half the story.

The Ali-Foreman face-off was twinned with a second spectacle, a three-day music festival called Zaire '74. James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, the Spinners and Sister Sledge made the trip from the United States to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars brought salsa from Cuba; and many of Africa's biggest stars also performed, including South Africa's Miriam Makeba and Zairean giants Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau.

For legal and financial reasons, the footage — much of it shot by ace documentarian Albert Mayles — has not been seen for 35 years. (Alas, a deal for a soundtrack hasn't been struck.)

Time — and the passing fashion of scoop-chested, bell-bottomed, rhinestone-studded unitards, such as the one Brown wears with the letters GFOS stitched at the belt — only adds to the magical quality of director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's explosively exciting film.

What does Soul Power have going for it, besides Don King's hair, Ali's charisma, and the best jamming-on-an-airplane-to-Africa sequence ever filmed? Well, for one thing, it packs the emotional and historical power of a heady "family gathering" celebration of African and, to use the term then in fashion, Afro-American pride.

Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud, Brown's climactic closer, resonates equally with the American performers and the African audiences.

"It's so peaceful over here: The savages are in America," opines Louisville native Ali, who is playful, magnetic and politically agitated in his interview segments. In one, he corrects a reporter who suggests that all men are brothers, because in Ali's view, brothers don't lynch one another.

Soul Power's agenda isn't so much political as musical. It's about African and American rhythmic communication, expressed by percussionist Ray Barreto jamming with Zairean musicians on the streets of Kinshasa, or Sister Sledge teaching the bump to African dancers backstage.

The festival — organized by King, New York record producer Stewart Levine and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela — took place six weeks before the fight, which was delayed after Foreman injured his eye while training. And the performers are caught at or near the height of their powers.

Unlike so many music documentarians, Levy-Hinte has the good sense to let each scintillating performance go from beginning to end. Everybody except the sweaty, mustachioed, ultra-dynamic Godfather of Soul, who muscles his crack band through Soul Power, The Big Payback and Cold Sweat among others, gets one song.

All make the most of the moment. Withers' solo acoustic lament Hope She'll Be Happier is a stunning crowd-silencer. And the pipe-smoking B.B. King, delighted to "see some beautiful ladies" as the plane touches down on African soil, is at his swaggering, note-bending best on The Thrill Is Gone.

Three and a half decades down the line, the Zaire '74 promoters deserve major props for booking acts whose music thrives on intercontinental rhythmic conversation, whether it's the Afro-Cuban stylings of the outrageously outfitted Cruz and the Fania All-Stars or the Western-influenced pearly guitar sound of Tabu Ley's soukous amalgam.

Soul Power doesn't employ after-the-fact pontificators or interviews about the significance of the event. Levy-Hinte, who has said there's enough unused footage for a second concert film, understands there's no need to over-contextualize or dilute the splendor of what transpires on the screen. He's smart enough to let the music do the talking.