Susan Granger’s review of “Soul Power” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Back in 1974, just before the “Rumble in the Jungle,” when Muhammad Ali faced George Foreman in an epic title fight, the most celebrated African-American R&B stars gathered in South Africa for a 12-hour, three-night music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, a ”roots” concept dreamed up by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine and promoted by Don King. Much of this was chronicled in Leon Gast’s 1996 Oscar-winning “We Were Kings.”
Unfolding chronologically, showing how the concert came together, the underwriters’ concerns, the preparation of the stadium, African street musicians and the assembling of the various artists, “Soul Power” is crafted from the extensive “outtakes” that were not utilized in that earlier documentary. These fragments of film have been painstakingly assembled by editor/producer/director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who was aware of this intriguing backstage and concert footage left languishing in a vault. Featured are stunning performances by James Brown and Miriam Makeba, whose native “clicking” sounds are amazing. Plus, there’s B.B. King with Lucille, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and Fania-All Stars bandleader Johnny Pacheco – it’s an eyeful and an earful but a great deal that you may have seen before.
It seems a shame that Levy-Hinte chose not to put this concert in its proper historical context. He makes no mention of the behind-the-scenes political intrigue that plagued Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – under the tyrannical rule of its then publicity-seeking president Mobutu Sese Seko, under whose auspices both the fight and the concert were organized. In “We Were Kings,” there were interviews with those in attendance like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, which added greatly to the overall impact. While Brown and Cruz have passed on, many of the other artists are still around and it’s too bad that Levy-Hinte didn’t include their reminiscences of “Zaire ’74.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to10, “Soul Power” is a conscientiously, if conventionally edited 5, focusing on the undeniable power of the music. Wait for the DVD.