I defy anyone to sit still through much of “Soul Power,” Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s infectiously funky concert documentary about the Zaire ’74 music festival.
The film itself could easily be considered an afterthought, an aggregation of outtakes from “When We Were Kings,” the 1996 documentary about the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight. But the performances that “Soul Power” captures are so captivating, so exciting, that it holds its own.
The festival it chronicles was organized to coincide with the Ali-Foreman fight – famous as the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Ali won back the heavyweight crown using his rope-a-dope strategy. When Foreman was cut over one eye during sparring, it caused a six-week delay in the bout – just as the festival was about to commence.
But concert promoters Stewart Levine and Hugh Masekela went forward with the three-day music festival, blending top Afro-pop acts with the cream of African-American music of the time: the Spinners, B.B. King, Bill Withers, the Crusaders – and James Brown. As the film shows, the chance to perform in Africa provided a profound cultural experience for the visiting musicians.
Levy-Hinte was an editor on Leon Gast’s “When We Were Kings,” the award-winning documentary about the fight itself. That film featured a nod to the festival – but focused on the Ali-Foreman showdown. Levy-Hinte went back to the archive and pulled a new, exciting film out of the mountain of footage, one that focuses on the festival and the performances, which are nothing short of electrifying.
There’s a mandatory prelude sequence to the festival, as the artists gather in New York to travel to Africa, even as Levine’s ground troops in Kinshasa struggle to ready the stage. Each day of the three-day festival includes behind-the-scenes footage of the artists interacting with local musicians and fans, making a connection they didn’t expect and wouldn’t soon forget.
To provide context, there’s also interview footage with Muhammad Ali, that most media-savvy of athletes, as he regales the camera and those in his vicinity with his thoughts about black power, slavery and politics in general. And, of course, there’s footage of promoter Don King, in all his sleazy, motormouth noxiousness.
But the treat here is the chance to watch vintage acts at the height of their powers. For all his struggles in later years, James Brown was the most dynamic performer of his generation – one of the greatest of all-time – and this film shows him in his prime – superfly wardrobe, superfast footwork, superfine singing voice.
Personally, I could watch an entire film of performances by the Spinners, an under-appreciated group that was to the ’70s what the Temptations and Four Tops were to the ’60s. Here, dressed in lavish silver jackets, with royal blue shirts and pants (and silver lightning-bolt belt buckles), their dancing and harmonies are impeccable. Levy-Hinte has said he intends to assemble and release DVDs of the full concerts at some point in the future; consider me first in the virtual line for that Spinners disc.
Indeed, one of the most emotional aspects of the film is the end-credits roll call of all the deceased artists shown at their most vivid: from James Brown and Philippe “Soul” Wynn of the Spinners to Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz – it’s bittersweet to see them at their best.
“Soul Power” might be considered a companion piece to “When We Were Kings.” But it stands sturdily on its own two happily dancing feet.