It’s taken thirty-five years for the footage in “Soul Power” to reach the screen, but it still feels fresh. The picture’s been assembled from material filmed in 1974 about a concert held in the African country then called Zaire in conjunction with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman championship bout. As such it’s a companion piece to Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings,” which used the footage dealing with the fight itself. That picture won an Oscar, and while Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s isn’t in the same class, it’s still very enjoyable.
There’s nothing terribly imaginative in the way Levy-Hinte has put the picture together. It’s basically chronological, first showing the chaotic (and ill-financed) preparations for the event that leave people uncertain even about the starting date, followed by the actual arrival of performers and crew in Zaire, and then footage of rehearsing and taking in the sites (always with musical interludes), before ending up with footage of the actual concert. It’s fun to watch the talent jam, and the machinations of promoter Don King or the antics of an observer like George Plimpton. But the best moments by far before the musicmaking actually takes over are provided by the energetic Ali, who seems to be having a great time peppering the others with his customary stream of ultra-cool verbiage while prepping for the bout.
Of course, it’s the concert footage itself that justifies the picture, and it gives a good selection, with headliner James Brown getting the lion’s share of the spotlight. But plenty of others, including Miriam Makeba and B.B. King, are featured too. Fortunately, many of the numbers are given complete, avoiding the helter-skelter, cut-and-paste format far too common nowadays.
“Soul Power” misses an opportunity to comment on the political circumstances in Zaire at the time of the fight and the concert; it would have been a useful reflection on African reality to present President Mobutu in a less airbrushed light.
But the well-preserved (or well-restored) footage, and the simple joy of the artists, easily put any misgivings in the shade. “Soul Power” is a fine tribute to vibrant era in American musical history, and just a foot-stomping pleasure to watch.