Film Review: 'Soul Power' bows to 'Rumble'

Documentary dances with song, stumbles as fight’s sparring partner

'The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,' James Brown, earns his nickname in the documentary 'Soul Power.'

Photo by Antidote Films/Sony Pictures Classics

"The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business," James Brown, earns his nickname in the documentary "Soul Power."

Constructed from footage shot in 1974, mostly in Zaire, Africa, the concert documentary "Soul Power" showcases "some of the most dynamic performers from Afro America," in the words of promoter Don King.

'The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,' James Brown, earns his nickname in the documentary 'Soul Power.'

Photo by Antidote Films/Sony Pictures Classics

"The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business," James Brown, earns his nickname in the documentary "Soul Power."

The three-day music festival Zaire '74 and the emerging musical crossover between Africa and America is documented.

Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language

Length: 93 minutes

Released: July 10, 2009 NY

Cast: Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Celia Cruz, B.B. King, Don King

Director: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

More info and showtimes »

The lineup includes B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers and James Brown, along with Cuba's Celia Cruz, South Africa's Miriam Makeba, the Congo's Tabu Ley Rochereau and the Fania All-Stars, a Latin ensemble featuring bandleader Johnny Pacheco and conga player Ray Barretto.

Brown, wearing a thick mustache to complement his sculpted wave of hair, is especially striking, zipped into a jumpsuit with the initials GFOS (for "Godfather of Soul") punched into the waistline in metallic studs. The suit is skintight but stretchy, and it doesn't inhibit the signature splits and funky spasms of the entertainer who is introduced with a promise to "make your liver quiver" and "your bladder splatter."

Despite the vintage visuals (dig those sideburns, bell bottoms and suede hats) and the fine performances, "Soul Power" isn't entirely satisfying. A sequel of sorts to the superb 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings," "Soul Power" may be the first movie manufactured, essentially, from what a DVD menu would label "deleted scenes."

"When We Were Kings" examined the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle," the famous 1974 prizefight in Zaire in which Muhammad Ali recaptured the heavyweight title from George Foreman. "Soul Power" narrows its focus to the three-day "Zaire 74" music fest that was organized by American record producer Stewart Levine and South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, in conjunction with the fight.

Unlike "Kings," which was directed by Leon Gast, "Soul Power," directed by "Kings" editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, doesn't use interviews or any other narrative devices to place its footage into any sort of historical or cultural context. This may not bother those who've seen "Kings" or are familiar with the performers, but others may feel like guests at a party where they don't know anybody -- a party at which they arrived too early. (The movie kills time with about a half-hour of pre-concert buildup; did we really need so many shots of the stage being built?)

Adding to the sense that this is a companion piece to "Kings" rather than a work that can stand on its own is the overlap between the films. Despite the presence of Brown, the most commanding figure in "Soul Power" is a non-musician: the outspoken yet sly Muhammad Ali, seen hanging out, with a sort of regal nonchalance, prior to the concerts. "No kidding, New York is more of a jungle than here," he comments. "Really, the savage is in America."

More provocatively, he asserts: "We white and black are not brothers." Yet he's also hilarious; spying a familiar face, he offers this greeting: "Stokely Carmichael -- don't you burn up nothing over here!"

"Soul Power" is at the Malco Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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