Soul Power

Directed By: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte


By the time I learned about the exploits of Muhammad Ali, he had long since moved from being a boxer to being a political, historical figure, a celebrity afflicted with a medical condition that effectively muted his fiery speech. It was the exemplary When We Were Kings that first opened my eyes to Ali the boxer, the athlete, and the most eloquent and engaging figure sports may have ever seen. That doc was decades in the making, touching upon the political difficulties in staging the fight in Zaire, and touching upon the music concert that was meant to coincide with it.

Soul Power very much owes much of its power to the earlier film – in any other context this concert would have been the highlight, but given the sheer drama and improbability of the fight itself, this mega concert really did become the sideshow. That said, there was some magnificent music created here, and this film rightfully places the music at the fore.

Directed by one of the editors of When We Were Kings, Soul Power is more than simply B-roll footage from the previous doc. We get a far better sense of the scope and scale of the show, of the logistical challenges brought by pulling off a megaconcert in a challenging political climate.

The highlight, surely, is the music. The African American and Afro-Cuban artists are clearly revelling in this so-called “return”, and the performances (by the likes of James Brown, the Spinners, and Celia Cruz) are all top notch. This is the early 70’s, after these artists had honed their groove, but before Disco would pasteurize the beat. These are hard driving, funky performances, sweaty and intense. The reunited JBs are on fire, with Maceo blowing his mind out with a righteous tone, and, of course, giving the film its title. The Spinners, just climbing their ladder of success, look somewhat out of place with their sweaty sideburns, but they bring their harmonies to the fore. Miriam Makeba, who in the previous film was relegated to snippits of her more intense gesticulations, is finally allowed to shine. Her introduction to the so-called “Click Song” has a far more cutting introduction than her similar intros with Belafonte, hinting not-so-subtly that the title is forced upon her as the “colonialists” can’t pronounce the Xhosa words.

It is an unexpected delight, however, to find that B.B. King shines brightest, with a downright unforgettable performance of the (now well tread) “The Thrill is Gone”. Injecting the blues with a laid back funk groove, this is B.B. at the top of his game, a simply extraordinary performance.

The audience is a wonderful part of the story as well. Amused and certainly entertained by the more mathematical precision of James Brown’s groove, it is Mongo Santamaria’s Cuban drumming that brings the audience to ecstasy. Certainly there is no more direct connection between African and North American music than the drum, and his dexterity on the bongos cuts through any cultural division. The uproar after his solo is electric.

Aside from the performances, we get greater insight into the activities of the artists themselves (again, a funny and charming B.B. steals the backstage show), and the film is peppered with extended scenes and interviews with Ali. His opponent, George Foreman, is nowhere to be found throughout the doc – his absence telling, if only that the artists themselves were certainly on the side of “The Champ”. That said, this (and other) absences are more than made up by the prior doc, allowing this film to tell its story unencumbered by the overriding narrative of the fight. It is thus at once more intimate and more specific in its focus (absent as well are the talking-head interviews).

Compelling, energizing, ecstatic, this is a show for the ages, and the doc does a great job adding another layer to the already sublime documentation of these events.

Grade: A


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