The Spirit of '74
Documentary captures the musical life going on behind the Rumble in the Jungle
As main events go, the Rumble in the Jungle is more than enough for any feature film to handle: magnetic former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, heavy-handed (and heavily favored) reigning champ George Foreman, and outlandish promoter Don King coming together in 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, for a title bout set against the backdrop of an African-American cultural return to the motherland and infused with the hope and fierce celebration of 1970s black nationalism. Leon Gast's sterling 1996 Rumble documentary When We Were Kings barely had room to make tantalizing mention of an intriguing sideshow: a three-day concert planned to coincide with the fight, featuring the flown-in cream of black American musical performers: B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and perhaps Ali's only rival as a pop-culture icon at the time, James Brown.
More than a dozen years after the release of Kings and 35 years after the Rumble itself, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's footage of the concert finally gets its time at center stage. Soul Power has nowhere near the narrative cohesion or emotional power of its companion, and, indeed, leaves almost all context by the wayside--the barest info conveyed via title cards, no talking heads, etc. But the music--and the subtext--of this no-frills documentary speak for themselves.
Any movie that opens with James Brown onstage has a hard time disappointing, though Soul Power does its best at the outset. King's vision of the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire as more significant and resonant than a palooka pair-off found receptive ears in South African pop star Hugh Masekela and American pop promoter Michael Levine, who teamed up to organize an accompanying concert. For the first half-hour, Levy-Hinte slogs through the logistical challenges and set-up of said show. The monotony of stagehands rigging lights and backstage participants providing exposition through stagey conversations is broken now and then by short candid segments featuring Ali (never one to let down a camera lens) or one of the performers (B.B. King snapping photos, Celia Cruz leading an in-flight jam session), but it's an opening act you're good and ready to have over.
Once the show starts in earnest, the musical knockouts start to land. Nothing prepares you for Withers' solo-acoustic bedsit-soul "Hope She'll Be Happier," a powerful personal revelation delivered in a sweltering stadium in front of 80,000 people. Two of Africa's most revered singers, Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, take the stage, though they go utterly unbilled until the final credits; Johnny Pacheco leads Cruz and the Latin supergroup Fania All Stars through their fiery paces. Finally, the Godfather of Soul (the bellyband of his jumpsuit spelling out "GFOS" in glittering studs) struts out for "The Big Payback" and a foreshortened medley of hits as the credits roll.
Time constraints limit all the featured performers but Brown to a single song each, so Soul Power never gains much momentum as a concert film. The handful of scenes featuring the American musicians wandering the streets of Kinshasa and engaging locals in impromptu concerts/jam sessions get closer to its appeal. It turns out that Levy-Hinte's cameras captured a glimpse of one of Black America's early post-civil rights peaks. Ali's blatant joy at being in Africa, where he was just a man, not a black man, appears to have spread through much of the concert contingent; scenes of Brown's back-up dancers teaching the Bump to their African counterparts or Spinners lead singer Philippé Wynne donning boxing gear to mock spar with Ali give form to the feeling of liberation that the moment, and the event, seemed to promise. While Soul Power glides past the fact that Don King made a deal with repressive, corrupt Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to make the fight and concert happen, at one point the camera lingers on a Kinshasan propaganda placard reading "Black power is sought everywhere, but it is already realized here in zaire." Seen within the context of Soul Power and the events the film documents, it rings like truth.