My favorite James Brown album has long been the bootleg The Godfather Goes To Africa -- despite its terrible fidelity -- purely for the unmatched fire in his performance. Soul Power, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s phenomenal documentary of that same 1974 concert, opens with Brown’s rendition of the eponymous hit. The soundboard-quality audio alone is an ear-opening experience. But to see Brown -- totally himself -- in living color at his funk-era peak, the JBs blazing, incredibly captivating onstage as he drops splits and throws the mic stand around like the baton in a one-man relay race from song to song... this is the stuff of legend.
The film chronicles the tumultuous planning process, near disasters and joyful execution of Zaire ’74, the massive concert dreamed up by South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and promoter Stewart Levine to bring the biggest stars of African-American music in the 1970s to the heart of Africa, most for their first time. Every frame of film in Soul Power was cut from multitudinous spools of discarded footage from the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, which focused on Don King’s legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, as the latter sought to reclaim his heavyweight title. The fight was postponed when Foreman’s eye was injured, but the show rolled on anyway.
The concert was designed to free mind and ass alike, to return the world’s most resonant pop idiom to the birthplace of its irresistible rhythmic force and put American R&B back in touch with the African musicians who carried on the tradition. Although those musicians had been busily spinning their own new variations on beats they learned from Western radio and television, we don’t see any mutant Fela-style Afrobeat here (a flaw of the concert, not the film). What we do see is a magnificent portrait of hardscrabble local life in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, as the filmmakers venture beyond the circumscribed zone of the concert itself to pick up a hodgepodge of fragments from the streets of Kinshasa.
Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, and Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars headline the all-star performance lineup and are matched on the visual side by a team of renowned cinematographers led by pioneering documentarian Albert Maysles. Everyone looks and sounds fabulous, but much of the film’s pleasure is in the backstage and city-street moments, when the stars actually interact with the Zairians and each other, jawboning about music, race, the continents twinned by centuries of bloody and heinous crime, the beautiful struggle on both sides of the Atlantic. Ali strides through and floats above the proceedings with all the titanic swagger of his legendary persona, holding forth on culture, politics, colonialism and slavery with the assorted participants. Unfortunately his perspective turns a blind eye to much of the human suffering caused directly by the Mobutu regime, in addition to the continent’s larger, tragic legacy of suffering. Many others involved make the same mistake. But that’s bound to happen when a notorious dictator is footing the bill for your festival, and, if anything, the film benefits from 40 years of historical distance.
It was the boxing match that made the concert and this film a reality, so it’s understandable that the earlier documentary, which Levy-Hinte edited, took precedence for so long. But while When We Were Kings saw its release delayed for over 20 years by legal issues, it’s a travesty that it took nearly as long afterward for a film like Soul Power to see the light of day. The movie was clearly a labor of love for Levy-Hinte, who couldn’t bear to see the concert and backstage material discarded forever.
Soul Power takes many of its cues from Wattstax, the inspiring documentary on the eponymous 1972 concert that saw legendary soul label Stax/Volt send its roster's heaviest hitters into south central L.A.’s Watts neighborhood in the wake of devastating riots to bring hope to the residents.(If this sounds familiar, it's because Wattstax inspired Dave Chappelle’s Block Party). Soul Power and Wattstax share a cinema-verite mission of enlightenment, seeking to leaven the music with the message. Unfortunately, the two share many similar flaws in execution. The performers are not explicitly identified for the most part until the very end credits, which does a much greater disservice to the African musicians than their easy-to-recognize American counterparts. And with so much time devoted to the greater social and political import of the concert events, the comparatively meager footage of the performances themselves leave the viewer wanting more. Thankfully, the information age may yet rectify most of these inconveniences: Levy-Hinte has said that his initial intention was to produce a set of concert DVDs, and he still hopes to do that. Anyone who sees this film will pray he follows through. Throw Soul Power in a box set with the entire three-day concert, and we'll finally have a record of that perfect dream -- Africa’s music made flesh and blood.