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James Brown & Lloyd Price (Photo: Antidote Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed by
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Produced by
Levy-Hinte, David Sonenberg & Leon Gast
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
In English & French with English subtitles
USA. 93 min. Rated PG-13
James Brown, Lloyd Price, Hugh Masekela, Bill Withers, B. B. King, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, Sister Sledge, the Crusaders, OK Jazz, Orchestre Afrisa International & Muhammad Ali

Like the classic concert films Monterey Pop (1969) and Woodstock (1970), Soul Power vividly captures lightning in a bottle—the music, the music makers, and the swirling circumstances of a particular time. That so many of these legendary performers have since died or can no longer perform at their peak adds considerably to the poignancy and our gratitude.

The riveting footage of the Zaire ‘74 concert includes the up-close work of noted vérité cinematographer Albert Maysles, which languished in legal limbo for decades. It was rediscovered during preparation for the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, about “the Rumble in the Jungle,” the heavyweight boxing championship between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Then the performances from the accompanying three-day festival in Kinshasa were just treated as musical interludes. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte reconstructed the full story of the event from over 150 hours of footage after he edited the 1996 film.

It seems inevitable that all concert films open with grandiose optimism and segue into barely controlled chaos, with missed deadlines, missed payments, and missing equipment. Soul Power adds to the mix the emotional and political symbolism of African-Americans bringing it all back home to Africa under the banner of “A Spiritual Commitment,” with Muhammad Ali lecturing on black is beautiful. The concert organizers, including boxing impresario Don King and the classic R & B singer Lloyd Price, announce the event with the flamboyant headliner, the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.

The performers spanned the royalty of black American popular music. R & B was represented by the choreographed pop of the Spinners, the disco of Sister Sledge, and singer/songwriter Bill Withers; the blues by B. B. King; jazz by the Crusaders; and Afro-Latin fusion by Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars. Their interactions en route, off stage in impromptu jam sessions, and backstage are a joy to watch. Other than Brown, who earns his appellation of “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” most of the performers get only one complete song, in full ‘70’s Afros and dress. Presumably, Levy-Hinte selected performances based on the best sound and visual quality, which accounts for the lesser-known numbers, such as Withers’ acoustic rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” a lovely song that hasn’t even been included in recent tributes.

On stage in front of a huge, enthusiastic stadium audience, the Americans alternate with African performers. Even though world music was not yet hip, Miriam Makeba was one of its first global superstars. She exults in singing in front of an African audience at a time when she was in exile from her South African homeland. While Levy-Hinte promises that all the concert footage can eventually be released on DVD, he notes that there was less footage of the African performers, which included thrilling percussionists and dancers.

The most irritating aspect of the film could be corrected in a DVD release: the performers are not identified when we see them perform. Though there is a very detailed listing in the closing credits (and a sadly lengthy memorial recognition), this woeful omission is very frustrating for back-up band members who are as equally legendary as the singers up front, particularly James Brown’s vital band, the J. B.’s, with Maceo Parker, “Sweet” Charles Sherrell, and Fred Wesley, as well as the ensemble supporting Celia Cruz—Ray Barretto, Nicky Marrero, Johnny Pacheco, and Yomo Toro.

All these artists have an essential recorded legacy, but Soul Power is a time machine that lets you travel to Zaire in 1974 (before it was the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to see their exciting performances when they were indeed kings and queens. Nora Lee Mandel
July 10, 2009



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