Another legendary 1970s-era concert sees the light of day through the miracle of technology in the joyously funky docu “Soul Power.” The untold story of the three-day lineup of soul and world talent that preceded 1974’s Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire and toplined James Brown, pic is an instant DVD classic, with prior theatrical and tube action in the cards a la 2003 rediscovery “Festival Express.”
Editor-producer-helmer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte worked on the 1995 docu “When We Were Kings,” about the Ali-Foreman fight proper. Drawn to the unedited backstage and concert footage that had languished in the vault, he has sculpted it into a fast-paced overview of the event that showcases both Ali and Brown at the pinnacle of their powers.
As talent gathers at a New York airport, on-site preparations are so chaotic that there’s dispute over concert’s actual start date. Meanwhile, talent erupts in impromptu jams everywhere, from plane to Kinshasha tarmac to urban marketplaces. Chief instigators are Celia Cruz and her band, who seem to be everywhere and later whip the crowd into a frenzy under energetic bandleader Johnny Pacheco.
Emotional high points are numerous: When asked what he’s doing in Africa, late writer-scenester George Plimpton enthusiastically waves a glass and blurts, “I’m drunk in Africa!,” while promoter Don King talks of his “mode of operandi” in organizing the extravaganza. Performer Miriam Makeba’s ex-husband, late black nationalist Stokely Carmichael, greets Ali, who cautions him, “Don’t burn up nothin’ over here,” even as BB King placidly smokes his pipe while eyeing “the beautiful ladies.” Late Spinners lead singer Philippe Wynne even climbs into the ring with Ali during training, with predictably humorous results.
Concert proper kicks in about a third of the way through. The Spinners glide through “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” Makeba does her novelty hit “The Click Song,” and Brown, whose “Soul Power” opens pic, returns for spirited, sweaty renditions of “Payback,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Can’t Stand Myself” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” In all, pic sports some 14 numbers from nine acts, most of them mercifully complete.
Tech package is as clean as could be expected from 30-year-old 16mm stock. HD transfer gives the authentic grain a velvety feel that’s perfectly in keeping with the contempo aesthetic. Sound mix is full and muscular. Pic, of which 35mm prints will be struck, is “in memory of” nine participants or influences who have since passed away. Levy-Hinte promises the entire concert on DVD, “but that,” he writes in the press notes, “is another mountain.” Bring it on.