A compelling glimpse at gathering of music greats
Everyone knows something about the Rumble in the Jungle. Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the country formerly known as Zaire in 1974. A documentary about the fight, “When We Were Kings,’’ won an Oscar. Less well known is that the Rumble had a soundtrack.
Before the fight, James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, among others performed in a three-day concert, discussed at the time as the “black Woodstock.’’ It was a footnote in “When We Were Kings,’’ but one of that film’s editors, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, has pared 125 hours of footage into “Soul Power,’’ a 93-minute freeform film of the festival. It rides in the “When We Were Kings’’ sidecar, a random abridgement that entertains despite its tendency to wander through a lot of terrific material.
In a sense, you can’t blame Levy-Hinte and his collaborators. A reduction of 125 hours of anything is going to feel distilled. Better to be impressionistic than to leave no impression at all. So the film becomes a sampler of the weeks surrounding the concert and the fight.
The big acts are shown doing one song - Brown does several. We experience daily life in Kinshasa, the musicians’ flight to the capital (Cruz and her Fania All-Stars start their own festival in the main cabin), backstage rehearsals with Sister Sledge, press conferences, shots of a less than sober George Plimpton and a starstruck Stokely Carmichael, sidebars about how the stars would be paid, private pep talks, the show’s crew erecting the stage, the bloviations of the fight’s promoter, Don King, and, of course, the scene-stealing, exclamatory poetry of Ali. (Foreman remains as much a notional punching bag in this movie as he was in “Kings.’’)
The concert was the idea of two musicians, producers, and friends - Stewart Levine, an American, and Hugh Masekela, a South African instrumentalist, Makeba’s husband, and the man responsible for the still-excellent 1968 hit, “Grazin’ in the Grass.’’ With the help of King and the financial backing of Liberian investors, Levine and Masekela got the artists to town, and what a royal parade it turned out to be: the King of the Blues, the Queen of Salsa, the Godfather of Soul.
It was a transformative trip for the Americans in the lineup. The concert took place after the height of the black power movement, and you can see how the trip gave some of these artists a sense of psychic and cultural completion. Africa was not their home, but it was their homeland. That spiritual homecoming was intensified in Zaire, a country that under its self-elected president, the former Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, promoted its own kind of black power revolution. The tall and serious Withers seems respectfully solemn, even for him. He’s as subdued doing “Hope She’ll Be Happier’’ as I’ve heard him.
The rest of the acts are more upbeat. Makeba, some of her hair done up as a fan (or a fin) atop her head, does a lively “Click Song.’’ King plans out his whole set list before he goes on, but we see him belt out only “The Thrill Is Gone’’ while one of his Lucilles gently weeps. Wailing through “Quimbara,’’ Cruz is fabulously, flamboyantly herself. The patterns on her epic rumba dress introduce a new art movement: jellybean expressionism. Then there is Brown, whom the film frames as the main attraction. He’s the most charismatic man in the lineup, and he’s the center of the musical universe offstage, too. He spends one of his sets in a black and blue bodysuit (puffy sleeves, flared legs) that says “GFOS’’ on the chest, most of which has been scooped out so that his pectorals become a kind of cleavage. Cruz has nothing on him.
What you don’t really sense is how much or whether the African-Americans and the Africans collaborated. (There is a wonderful scene backstage of the Sledge sisters showing two women in dashikis how to do the bump. The Africans try the American way - hip to hip, derriere to derriere - then offer a more suggestive interpretation.) But the movie isn’t out to argue anything. We’re guided loosely through it all. The idea is to share with us that this show happened. But gluttons for these artists and for music festivals in general might wonder, as I have, whether there’s any way the filmmakers might share more of the remaining 123 1/2 hours.