There are a lot of mind-blowing moments in Soul Power, the documentary about a 1974 music festival that brought James Brown, B.B. King and other greats to Zaire. One of those moments comes when Muhammad Ali says he feels freer in that country, these days the Democratic Republic of the Congo, than in the United States. It's one of many provocative statements from a man famous for provocative statements, and it says a lot about race relations in the U.S., but it's startling. This is, after all, the Zaire of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko. To be certain, the euphoria of Africa's decolonization was still fresh in 1974. It was a time of liberation. But Mobutu was one of Africa's most cynical and predatory kleptocrats, and you don't generally associate his name with freedom.
The festival's occasion was Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" prizefight with George Foreman in Kinshasa. That fight was documented in the acclaimed 1996 film When We Were Kings, and Soul Power is assembled from When We Were Kings outtakes.
In production notes, Soul Power director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte cites the film Woodstock as an influence, and you can see that not only in the close-up intensity of the stage performances, but also in the fact that many scenes take place away from the stage: Celia Cruz's band jams, wonderfully, on the cramped plane ride to Zaire. Roadies build a stage in a massive stadium. The tour manager squabbles with the investors' representative. School children march and sing. Women till dirt.
And in interviews, the African American entertainers talk about what it means for them to visit Africa. The trip seems like a heady occasion for them - a spiritual commitment, to use the phrase that emerges as a motto for the event. I'm curious to know what Zairians made of the spiritual commitment, but other than glimpses of them dancing, we don't get to learn much about Zairians.
In short, a lot of ancillary material is included. Too much, I'd say. The approach works in Woodstock, but that's partly because the earlier film is three hours long, and the filmmakers had room to stretch out, develop a pleasing, textured rhythm. Soul Power is a brief 93 minutes, and at that running time I could use less texture and more music.
But oh, the music. These are marvelous performances, and they are recorded with remarkable clarity. James Brown was a titanic entertainer, and he was in supreme control of his powers in 1974. His performance of tunes like "Cold Sweat" is inspirational. Bill Withers, as composed as James Brown is frenetic, delivers a quietly searing "Hope She'll Be Happier." The Spinners prove gloriously flamboyant showmen, Miriam Makeba is witty and delightful as she performs "The Click Song," and Cruz is life itself.
Soul Power is talkier than it ought to be, but when the talking ends and the music starts, you may find yourself wondering why your fellow moviegoers aren't dancing alongside you.