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Designed as a cultural complement to the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight, Zaire ’74 was headlined by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. (Picasa 2.7)
Designed as a cultural complement to the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight, Zaire ’74 was headlined by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. (Picasa 2.7)

Thirty-five years late - and perfect timing Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Soul Power

  • Directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
  • With James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Celia Cruz and B.B. King
  • Classification: PG

Soul power: It's been a long, long time comin'.

I'm not just talking about the election of the first African-American president 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but about the belated release of Soul Power, a documentary featuring live performances by James Brown, the Spinners, Bill Withers and B.B. King, as well as African notables such as Tabu Levy, Miriam Makeba and OK Jazz.

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The three-day festival occurred 35 years ago in an 80,000-seat stadium in Kinshasa, the capital of what was then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Billed as Zaire '74 and financed by nervous Liberian investors with the blessing of Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the event was conceived as a cross-cultural complement to the epic Rumble in the Jungle title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

While both the festival and the championship fight were filmed by the same camera crew in Kinshasa, an accident - an eye injury to Foreman that postponed their heavyweight bout for six weeks - ended up orphaning the one from the other. It was not until 1996 that the fight footage was finally shaped into a film (the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings ), and it's only now, in Soul Power, that the hundreds of hours of 16-mm film shot before, during and after the concerts are receiving their High Definition due.

It would be nice to say the wait has been worth it, but that implies pent-up demand - that the world at large has known about Zaire '74 and has anxiously awaited its cinematic reprise. But how can you have a myth when you don't know what you've been missing?

What can be said is that Soul Power 's release now is a heck of a lot more timely than, say, during the reign of Ronald Reagan. The election of a black man to the White House - and a black man whose father was born in Kenya, immigrated to America, then returned to Africa - has renewed the United States' long-running conversation and debate about racial identity, racial pride and the cultural and economic parameters of race, not to mention America's many debts to Africa.

These issues are certainly on the agenda in Soul Power, sometimes overtly, other times lightly. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, coming to the material long after the fact (he was an editor on the Ali-Foreman film), could have crafted a blast-from-the-past concert film crammed with great music from start to finish and pretty much left it at that. However, he provides great music - African-American and African as well as Afro-Hispanic - and interesting context, too.

This includes the agonizing preparations for the concert (no one seems to have known on which day it was supposed to begin), the 13-hour flight by the musicians from New York to Zaire, sundry backstage antics, visits to Ali's training camp and prowls around Kinshasa and its dusty, sweltering environs. Indeed, the film's concert portion only kicks in around the 35-minute mark, with the Spinners, resplendent in bell-bottomed suits, sweating through a sharply choreographed rendition of their Philly-flavoured hit One of a Kind (Love Affair) .

Every act is allotted one song in the film, except for- who else? - James Brown, who powers his inimitable way through ThePayback, Cold Sweat, I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) and, finally, a crowd-rousing SayIt Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud. Forty-one at the time, he's a leg-splitting, microphone-tipping force of nature topped with an impregnable pompadour.

The film's other dominating presence is the pride of the Nation of Islam, the former Cassius Clay. Muhammad Ali is on high motor-mouth here, expounding, in a potpourri of cameos, his views on his own importance ("God made me bigger than all the entertainers in America"), his distaste of liberal shibboleths ("We are not all brothers!"), American racism ("I'm the world's greatest fighter. Otherwise, I'd just be a Negro") and the superiority of Africa ("New York is more of a jungle than here. … The savages are in America"). An especially amusing moment occurs when Ali, spotting Stokely Carmichael in a crowd, tells the Black Power firebrand: "Don't burn up nothin' over here."

On occasion, Levy-Hinte catches some of the black American musicians musing about the notion of home. Is home America, where their ancestors were brought and sold in chains for more than three centuries? Or is it Africa, which most of the musicians had never visited before?

Their answers are inconclusive. Moreover, greater insight might have been found in the interaction between the visiting artists and their hosts, and there appears to have been little of that, a result perhaps of language barriers. (Zaireans spoke a variety of tribal languages and French.)

Whatever the situation, the film seems to be saying ( Soul Power wears its ethnomusicology very lightly) that music is the touchstone for all concerned, especially the crazy quilt of rhythms that makes Soul Power pretty much a non-stop head-bobbing knee-bouncer. It's gonna be one heck of a DVD, provided it comes with all the bells and whistles - and congas and kalimbas - that it deserves.

Follow on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

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