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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2008!
SOUL POWER, 2008
A documentary on the legendary soul music concert staged in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.
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The documentary/concert film Festival Express, released in 2004, documented the legendary cross Canada 1970 Festival Express tour, which contained some of the biggest names in pop and rock music of the time, such as Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead, where the artists travelled across the country to the performance dates via train. The footage remained unseen for over thirty years due to legalities. When all the legal red tape was resolved, the resulting documentary film was an insightful and entertaining treasure trove of both performance and behind the scenes footage, as well as interviews conducted in the present with surviving participants, giving the archival footage context.
There were high expectations for Soul Power, the long-awaited documentary of the music festival Zaire 74, the footage of which was in a similar situation to that of Festival Express, and that it would be as insightful and entertaining as that film was. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Zaire 74 was the brainchild of virtuoso African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American record producer Stewart Levine. The concept was a festival that would showcase to the world international incarnations of African music in the place that they sprung from. Alongside African artists would also be African-American and African-Latino artists, for whom it would be a “homecoming”, going to the birthplace of their ancestors.
Masekela and Levine had been trying for years to bring the festival to fruition, to no avail. However, a golden opportunity arose when boxing promoter Don King organized a match, dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle”, between then current heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali, in an effort to regain his title, in Zaire, Africa in September, 1974. Seeing the mass exposure and publicity that the boxing match would receive, Masekela and Levine approached and convinced King to hold the music festival in conjunction with the fight, occurring a few days before it.
Then Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko agreed to finance the boxing match, but not the music festival, nor the film documenting both. Financing materialized through a Liberian investment group, however, civil suits with the group would result in the footage being shelved for over twenty years.
The civil suits were resolved in the mid 90s and director Leon Gast finally realized his vision with the intimate and highly entertaining Oscar winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996). That film only focused on The Rumble in the Jungle, with only brief clips of the music festival interspersed. Zaire 74 became the subject of its own documentary/concert film in 2009, but the results were disappointing.
Soul Power gets off to a promising start with rousing footage of James Brown’s (who was the festival headliner) performance of the title song and opening titles explaining the backstory of Zaire 74. The film then proceeds to a clip of the New York press conference with Don King and Muhammad Ali announcing both the boxing match and music festival. A bump in the road is encountered when Foreman is injured during training, causing the fight to be postponed for six weeks. The festival organizers decide to forge ahead on the dates already booked, as several of the artists are unable to postpone due to commitments following Zaire 74. After this point, which is at around the fifteen-minute mark, the film ceases to be compelling and degenerates into banal tedium.
The remainder of Soul Power is a monotonous and anticlimactic assembly of the archival footage that lacks context and insight. Director Jeffrey Levin-Hinte, who was one of the editors on When We Were Kings, tries to fashion the documentary in the same vein as the classic Oscar winning documentary/concert film Woodstock (1970), but it just doesn’t work. Soul Power lacks the context, narrative drive and overall energy that that documentary had. One big detriment, and it’s rather odd that Levin-Hinte made this choice, is that interviews conducted in the present with surviving participants, which were utilized in both Festival Express and When We Were Kings, were not conducted. Such interviews would have provided the context and narrative drive that is sorely lacking.
Now, one would think that the main purpose of this film is to showcase all the great music that was filmed and recorded, and that it would be the saving grace, despite the structural flaws. Alas, not even the music, for the most part, gives Soul Power the shot of energy that it needs. The majority of the performances that are included seem more like outtakes than prime choices. The musical sequences that have some life to them are those featuring B.B. King, Big Black and The Crusaders, who were the backing band for most of the artists at the festival. Not even James Brown’s closing song, which also closes the film, has neither the excitement he was known for generating on stage, nor the closure necessary to end the documentary.
Oddly enough, the deleted musical performances, included on the DVD’s bonus features, were more worthy of being in the film than most of the ones that were used. The deleted sequences include songs performed by James Brown (vastly superior to the footage of his performance used in the final cut), African band Abeti (containing a superb Jimi Hendrix-esque guitar solo by the band’s lead guitarist) and American r&b/pop group Sister Sledge, five years before the release of their biggest hit and signature song We Are Family. Sister Sledge represents another one of Jeffrey Levin-Hinte’s odd choices. In the final film, footage of the group rehearsing, which is nothing spectacular, is included, yet their performance, which is very entertaining, was not.
Soul Power had the potential to be another Festival Express, but it missed mark. Perhaps that was due to Levin-Hinte’s lack of experience as a director, as this was his directorial debut; he is a producer and was an editor. Festival Express director Bob Smeaton would’ve been an ideal choice, with his perfect credentials also including The Beatles Anthology and several episodes of the British documentary series Classic Albums.
The feature commentary, provided by Levin-Hinte and Stewart Levine, on the DVD, are the closest thing to present day interviews that would’ve given Soul Power the context, insight and energy it needed. The track is a pleasure to listen to, especially Levine’s reminiscences.