THE JUNGLE’S STILL RUMBLING Soul Power

Director Jeffrey
Levy-Hinte on his documentary of the Zaire ’74 concert.

 

BY ZACHARY
HERRMANN

 

It’s not often a first-time director gets handed such an
enigmatic cast: James Brown, B.B. King, Mohammad Ali and Don King. Then, add
into the equation footage shot by some of the best documentary cinematographers
in history, most notably Albert Maysles of Gimme
Shelter
fame, and Soul Power‘s
director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte knew where he stood.

 

“They put me on the 99th yard line, right?” Levy-Hinte says.
“It took me a couple of years, but, hopefully, I feel as if I got it into the
end zone. I really started with such wonderful elements that the burden really
was on me not to screw it up.”

 

Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Altamont, Zaire
‘74 – in terms of fame and recognition, one of these historical concert-events
is definitely not like the others. But Soul
Power
, Levy-Hinte’s powerful rock-doc/cinema verité hybrid account of the
latter happening could change all that as the film rolls out across the
country, beginning Friday, July 10 in New York and Los Angeles.

 

Conceived in conjunction with the fall 1974 Ali-George
Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, Zaire ‘74 was a
three-day music festival featuring Brown, King, Bill Withers, The Spinners,
Celia Cruz and many popular, local groups. By design – and as depicted in the
film – the concert became a symbol of cultural exchange between black America and Africa.

 

Levy-Hinte first came across the concert footage in 1995
while working as an editor on Leon Gast’s Academy Award-winning documentary
about the Ali-Foreman match, When We Were
Kings
.

 

“In a way I didn’t really get the idea for the film, so much
as I knew something needed to be done with the material,” the director says. “I
didn’t really know what form that would take or what that needed to be. It just
felt so… wrong to place it back in the vault.”

 

From a technical standpoint, Soul Power‘s source material has weathered the test of time. The
mid-‘70s film stock carries a similarly beautiful color palette and grain as Gimme Shelter and the dynamic
performances have all been stunningly remastered. Though Levy-Hinte was horrified
when he first saw how the film had been stored – cardboard boxes and rusty cans
– “there was very little deterioration, if any” once he actually looked at the
footage.

 

Despite his claims as to not being a musical “aficionado”
(“I kind of have a standard set of CDs and I listen occasionally”), Levy-Hinte
carries a clear sense of musicality and its social importance which shapes Soul Power from top to bottom. The film
builds gradually toward the marquee names through the logistics of pulling off
the show, weaving in street bands and drum circles, airplane jams and brief
rehearsals.

 

“A sense of music is kind of coming from everywhere. Every
door you open or every corner you turn, there’s going to be something happening
that’s musical and kind of life giving and affirmative,” he says.

 

Of course, for all the little, subtle moments in Soul Power, there are plenty of
jaw-dropping, show-stopping knockouts.

 

Brown’s performances – excerpted as the film’s opening and
then appropriately returned to for the finale – are as brassy and charismatic
as you’d expect from the dearly departed Godfather of Soul and his early/mid
’70s backing band, The JB’s. “Cold Sweat”, “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You
Touch Me)” and the film-closer “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” get all
the punch and vigor they deserve in the mix.

 

Soul Power has its
stars – mainly Brown and Ali – but Levy-Hinte constructed the film as an
ensemble piece, and often, the supporting cast steals the show. Summer may be
blockbuster season at the movies, but so far, 2009’s shock-and-awe screen
moment goes to Soul Power for
Withers’ unbelievable solo rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” Jaws will be
dropped.

 

“I actually went back and listened to other recordings from
these groups around the time to really listen to how I should mix them – I
wanted to be somewhat authentic to it – and frankly, these recordings just blow
all of them away,” Levy-Hinte says. “Not to toot the horn of the film, I really
have to say an objective audience would feel the same way.”

 

At one point, early in the project, Levy-Hinte contemplated
taking on Zaire
‘74 in a series of concert films. As for an extended, home video cut of the
film incorporating more of the performances, only time and funding will tell.

 

“I always felt that in order to really appreciate the music
and fully engage with it, it was more interesting to have more of the context
and the background to get more engaged with the lives of the participants,” he
says.

 

“But certainly there were some people who raised their hands
and said, ‘Screw all that other stuff, we want music!’ And I can totally get
that too.”

                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

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