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Soul Power

In 1974, a boxing match pitting Muhammad Ali against George Foreman for the heavyweight championship was scheduled by promoter Don King to take place in Zaire—the “Rumble in the Jungle.” To make the event even bigger, a concurrent three-day music festival featuring the best of African and African-American performers was arranged. The fight was postponed for six weeks, and while the concert went on as scheduled, the footage of it sat in cans for years, even after the 1996 documentary about the fight, When We Were Kings, won the Academy Award.

Filmmaker culled the hundreds of hours of footage shot at the three-day festival to get Soul Power, a documentary that barely teases you with the musical performances that occurred. The musicians include James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, the Spinners, the Crusaders, and some less familiar names. But the music doesn’t start until after we’ve sat through 35 minutes of arrivals and preparations. Setting the vibe is all well and good, but little of this footage is terribly interesting unless you’re a Don King aficionado or can’t get your fill of 1970s fashions. Worse, at no time are any of these people less than fully aware that they’re being filmed, which is fine with a veteran camera hog (I mean that in the best possible way) like Ali, but dreary for most everyone else.

What music we get is terrific, but there’s far too little of it. Only Brown gets to do more than a single number, and even at that most of the performances are truncated before they can work up a head of steam. Couldn’t B.B. King once be shown doing something other than “The Thrill Is Gone”? Are we expected to believe that James Brown would trim “The Payback” to under two minutes? The whole thing clocks in at barely over 90 minutes—surely there was room for more than four minutes of Celia Cruz fronting a band that was not called the All-Stars for no reason? One will hope the DVD contains a lot more footage. But one also has to wonder why the version of this shown in theaters has about as much music as a Time-Life infomercial.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Soul Power

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