Soul Power

By Brendan Twist


It’s preferable to examine a movie on its own terms, but sometimes that’s just not possible. With “Soul Power,” first-time director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (better known as a producer) has taken on an unusual task.  He has cobbled together a film from the outtakes of Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings,” which in turn was shot largely in 1974 and chronicled one of the epic moments in modern sport, the Rumble in the Jungle. 


Fans of that remarkable, Oscar-winning docu , which was produced by Taylor Hackford, will remember a concert, dubbed Zaire ’74, that was held in conjunction with the heavyweight title bout between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman. “Soul Power” switches focus from the boxing match to this massive R&B festival, which featured figures like James Brown and B.B. King.


At its best, “Soul Power” is a celebration of these artists and their performances over three nights in Kinshasa, Zaire.  In beautifully shot close-ups, the concert footage captures the raw energy of the live setting, demonstrating the zeal and tremendous physicality of the musicians; they were working up there. Thankfully, Levy-Hinte lingers on the performances.  B.B. King tears through “The Thrill is Gone,” romancing his guitar and quite obviously enjoying himself.  The Spinners, sweat pouring down their faces, sing and dance in unison on “One of a Kind (Love Affair).”  Blessed with an incredible voice, Bill Withers gives an absolutely jaw-dropping rendition of the ballad “Hope She’ll Be Happier.”


But “Soul Power” belongs to James Brown, and he owns it. Strutting around in spandex like a superhero, the Godfather of Soul, over 40 when this was shot, exhibits the vibrancy of a man half his age.  And although his popularity would soon begin to wane, in the movie his superstardom remains intact; his charisma is matched only by Mohammad Ali’s. As he screams, gyrates, does the splits, and belts out numbers such as “The Payback” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” Brown glows onscreen. Given the volume and quality of the Brown footage, it’s no wonder that Levy-Hinte made him the star of his picture.


The offstage material, of which there is plenty, is less engaging. The speed bumps hit by the concert’s organizers–confusion over the dates of the festival, difficulty with lighting rigs–seem standard, almost mundane, despite the uniqueness of the event.


More interesting are the scenes featuring the locals. Some go about business as usual, but most look excited for their nation to take the world stage, and energized by the sudden influx of Western celebrity.  Don King appears, reminding us that Zaire ’74 was still a business venture. There is, however, a palpable passion in the scenes of the Zairian citizens playing hand drums, saxophones and all manner of African instruments in the streets outside the show. The music itself may really have been bigger than the spectacle of a star-studded stadium concert.


“Soul Power” and “When We Were Kings” feature the same cast of characters. They use different footage shot by the same cameramen, from the same interviews, press conferences, concerts and jam sessions, and in this sense, “Soul Power” can’t escape feeling like a bit of a retread. Levy-Hinte chose to forego any additional, updated interviews, and used only the footage from 1974. But in “When We Were Kings,” such interviews, conducted with Norman Mailer, Spike Lee and others, added great depth to the characters, and provided much needed sociopolitical context. 


James Brown is a joy to watch here, but he’s not multidimensional like Ali was in “Kings,” nervous, furious, hysterically funny and full of conviction. Ali appears in “Soul Power” in a smaller role, and has a couple of good lines, the best of which were used in the earlier movie. As for a larger context for the concert, there are some vague musings from the artists about African-Americans returning to their homeland. Still, for a greater understanding of what was happening at that time and place, it’s more rewarding to watch “When We Were Kings,” despite the fact that it relegates the concert to a secondary role.


That said, Levy-Hinte has done an admirable job with what he had to work with, “directing” a film for which he shot no footage. It should be noted that Leon Gast, who oversaw the filming of this material three decades ago, shares a producing credit. A fight is inherently more dramatic than a concert, lending itself to a stronger narrative arc, but there is a wealth of good material here that might never have been seen otherwise.


The 35 years between then and now have a way of making the musicians feel even more outsized and spectacular. James Brown and B.B. King remain iconic figures today, in an age when R&B has come to mean something entirely different, far more processed and synthetic. Some of the artists in the docu, such as Miriam Makeba and the Spinners, are less well known by today’s audiences. “Soul Power” provides as good a primer for their considerable talents.