7/30/09

Review: Soul Power (2009)


Soul Power rocks, it's a lost goldmine of great soul, blues and African music from a music festival arranged to coincide with the "Rumble in the Jungle," the title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

The film opens with a little blurb describing the concert and some of the circumstances surrounding it, including the fact that Zaire's dictator, Joseph Mobutu, may have promised to foot more of the bill than ended up happening, perhaps a reason why the film was not cut together and presented for so long. There are some other scenes of the difficulties and obstacles presented to actually staging the concert, and they're a little bit interesting in places, but more could have been dropped without bad effect.

But James Brown and Ali are the undisputed stars of the film, Brown in performance and conversation, Ali mostly in conversation and action. Both are at the tops of their games as performers and commentators, and it's a true pleasure to discover this historical document of that time and place.

It's a concert film, and a top-notch one at that. Brown is electric, and other standouts include the Spinners, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz (!). But it's more than that, too.

It's more in the sense that we get a lot of behind-the-scenes moments surrounding the concert itself, and the good parts are very, very good. Scenes of Brown, Don King and Ali talking about the significance of the concert itself, the significance of traveling to Africa and the politics of the time are priceless. Some of Ali's monologues are masterful musical performances of their own.

Several of the American artists travel out to the local populace, and welcoming and impromptu performances by street musicians or groups of children, along with footage from the plane ride over for many of the top-billed performers, keep the music going even when we've stepped away from the concert itself. There's a great sequence of Celia Cruz and her group getting warmed up to perform that alone is more than worth the price of admission.

I'm a big fan of most of the musicians featured, as well as quite interested in the other characters of the film, so I was literally glued to my seat the whole time, not wishing to miss a note or a word. There are a couple of performances which leave a bit to be desired, but it's more than made up for by some of the little moments never before seen anywhere else, and the extravagant perfection of the best stuff included.

In particular, I would have liked to hear a better Bill Withers song, but on the other hand, the one he performs represents his style and personality fairly adequately, so it's not a big complaint.

In terms of overall shape, Soul Power is not quite on the level of the truly great rock documentaries, like Don't Look Back, Gimme Shelter, or The Last Waltz, but it's not because of a lack of great music, great cinematography, or an irreplaceable cast of characters. In those regards, Soul Power more than holds its own. Clearly, an amazing time was had by all, and it's so watchable.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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