By Dan Deluca, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the heavyweight championship of the world in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the epic 1974 “rope-a-dope” battle, known as the Rumble in the Jungle, that was documented in Leon Gast’s film When We Were Kings.
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But Gast’s masterful 1996 film told only half the story. The Ali-Foreman face-off was twinned with a second spectacle, a three-day music festival called Zaire ’74. James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, the Spinners and Sister Sledge made the trip from the United States, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars brought salsa from Cuba, and many of Africa’s biggest stars also performed, including South Africa’s Miriam Makeba and Zairean giants Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau.
For legal and financial reasons, the footage — much of it shot by ace documentarian Albert Mayles — has not been seen for 35 years. (Alas, a deal for a soundtrack release still hasn’t been struck.) But the passage of time only adds to the magical quality of director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s explosively exciting film.
What does Soul Power have going for it, besides Don King’s hair, Muhammad Ali’s charisma and the best jamming-on-an-airplane-to-Africa sequence ever filmed? Well, for one thing, it packs the emotional and historical power of a heady “family gathering” celebration of African and, to use the term then in fashion, Afro-American pride.
“It’s so peaceful over here: The savages are in America,” opines Ali, who is playful, magnetic and politically agitated in his interview segments. In one he corrects a reporter who suggests that all men are brothers, since in Ali’s view brothers don’t lynch one another.
Soul Power doesn’t have a political agenda so much as a musical one. It’s about African and American rhythmic communication, expressed succinctly in percussionist Ray Barreto jamming with Zairean musicians on the streets of Kinshasa, or Sister Sledge teaching African dancers how to do the bump backstage.
Unlike so many music documentarians, Levy-Hinte has the good sense to let each scintillating performance go from beginning to end. Everybody except the sweaty, mustachioed, ultra-dynamic Godfather of Soul — who muscles his crack band through Soul Power, The Big Payback and Cold Sweat, among other hits — gets one song.
Soul Power doesn’t employ any after-the-fact pontificators, or interviews about the significance of the event. Levy-Hinte, who has said there’s enough unused footage for a second concert film, understands that there’s no need to over-contextualize or dilute the splendor of what transpires on the screen. He’s smart enough to let the music do the talking.
Director: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte.
Producers: Leon Gast, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, David Sonenberg.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 93 minutes. Some thematic elements, brief strong language. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.