'Soul Power' chronicles emotional '70s

Posted: July 30, 2009

It's taken 35 years for the music-drenched documentary "Soul Power" to make its way to the screen. But in this age of Obama, a belated look back at a time when some noted African-Americans first got to connect with their African roots and flex their "I'm Black and I'm Proud" soul power muscles at a big festival in Zaire (now Congo) seems somehow appropriate and fitting.

Starring the likes of James Brown, B.B King, Bill Withers and Celia Cruz & The Fania All-Stars, the Zaire '74 festival in Kinshasa was planned to coincide with the Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" - a championship boxing match immortalized in a separate documentary "When We Were Kings."

Then Foreman injured his eye, forcing the fight's postponement for six weeks. Still, the talent and flights were booked, tickets were sold and the stage construction (supervised by Philadelphia-based lighting whiz Bill McManus) was under way. Oh, and we learn that some of the production crew (also including Chip Monck, of Woodstock fame) were about to join the Rolling Stones tour. So the show just had to go on as scheduled.

Shot by some of the best cinema verite cameramen in the biz, like Stones documentarian Albert Maysles, and only recently assembled by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, "Soul Power" is really three stories in one.

It's one-third backstage machinations and teeth-gnashing over crises like Brown's 30,000 pounds of excess baggage and the re-setting of opening night by Zaire's flamboyant dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Then there's the big-picture theme of awakening black consciousness (underscored with visions of local street life), combined with an outpouring of long-festering anger, which participants felt more comfortable expressing after they'd landed on African soil.

Clearly, this concert and prize fight turned into a noble mission for some. The vehemently race-conscious Ali proves especially eager to spout off to any and all about how much more civilized Africa seemed to him than America. And promoter Don King happily draws a connection between his big budget slugfest and the goal of fiscal self-determination.

Ultimately, though, it's the music that makes this film a cause for celebration - especially the chance to see "Soul Brother #1" James Brown and his blistering band perform at their absolute prime.

Also given some quality screen time are the likes of soul-jazz greats The Crusaders, Philly-spawned stars The Spinners and Sister Sledge (only seen rehearsing backstage) and native African talents like Miriam Makeba (doing her intriguing "Click Song") and Manu DiBango - the saxophonist sparking a give-and-take with kids on the street.

I mention some of those performers in scenic context because the director has not seen fit to identify people in the film. Clearly, he's lived with this footage long enough to know the entire cast of characters intimately, but viewers, especially younger ones, should have gotten a full-fledged introduction.

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