Whatcha want: Soul Power

In Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 20, 1974, in what was billed as the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali employed a strategy called the rope-a-dope, letting the reigning heavyweight champion George Foreman pummel him for the first several rounds of the fight. Then Ali began taunting the wearying champ, “They told me you could punch, George.” At the end of the eighth round, Ali concluded the beautiful fight by landing a hard right to the face. Twenty-two years later, in 1996, Leon Gast put together a documentary about the fight, When We Were Kings, which you should see or revisit.

Soul Power is a documentary about what was originally conceived as a sideshow to that fight: a three-day music festival in Kinshasa of pan-American soul and Afrobeat: James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba and Tabu Ley Rochereau, to name a few. But because Foreman cut his eye in training, the fight was delayed, and the music festival had to take place as a thing unto itself. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who worked as an editor on When We Were Kings, fell in love with all the footage of the festival. Now he’s gotten around to putting together this document of absolutely joyous music.

Soul Power is a trip–literally. It follows the zigzag of emotions involved in most trips, especially those sustained by the dream of returning to the source. Like even the best trips there are parts–the downtime, the wrangling, the confusion–you could probably live without; in this case, there’s a fair amount of time devoted to the headaches of scheduling musicians and erecting sound systems. But Levy-Hinte realizes, as serious travelers do, that it’s the petty detail-work that makes the trip possible and in the end provides the necessary contrast for the moments of illumination.

Besides, the trip is well worth it; that’s clear from the first moment. Out of the darkness we hear James Brown holler, “I want to get up and do my thang–movin’, movin’.” After he’s sufficiently worked up, he proceeds to move, move, like only the Godfather of Soul can. After his signature splits, he pops up and breaks into “Soul Power,” and a beauty in sparkly bikini top, sparkly jean shorts, and boots up above her knees, starts swinging her lithe limbs to the infectious beat. After this taste of what’s to come, Levy Hinte takes us back and shows us the precarious preparations, the expectant airplane ride, and snippets of the people and landscape of Zaire. The movie culminates in a blaze of exuberant dancing and singing, broken up by a heartbreaking version of “Hope She’ll Be Happier” by Bill Withers, whose voice does to the soul what Foreman did to Ali.

Soul Power has no time for talking heads lecturing us on what we’re supposed to know or think. Occasionally the performers, along with Muhammad Ali, reflect on Africa and their motivations for traveling there. Ali, with his signature panache, rants justly about the injustices of America, but fails, as romantic travelers often do, to see the dark side of Mobutu’s Zaire. B.B. King observes with greater penetration that African Americans who return to Africa are in the odd situation of going from one home that’s not quite a home to another home that’s not quite a home.

But once the performances start, we all immediately feel where home is. The footage of these performances is not just wonderful for documenting such joyous music and dancing, it’s as good as any footage I’ve ever seen of a concert, shot by talented professionals like Albert Maysles, the maker of Gimme Shelter. T.S. Eliot–a lover of popular music, by the way–has already described the experience: “music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.” Eliot is talking about an intimation of heaven. All I know is that anybody who walks out of Soul Power and downloads “Seli-Ja” by Tabu Rey Rochereau is a friend in the things of the spirit.

The end is where we started from: the mustachioed James Brown. Somehow he is the center of the film, the core of its energy, and his final jubilant performances of “The Payback” and “Cold Sweat” speak as directly to the Zairean audience as they do to us, as if his groove were neither American nor African, or else completely both. Just like in When We Were Kings, we see in Soul Power a portrait of the hopes, realities, delusions and bell-bottoms of the seventies, but we get something that history hasn’t yet knocked down, something that still knocks us out.

Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. He is also sometimes a moderator on KCRG’s “Ethical Perspectives on the News” and sometimes a cook at Simone’s Plain and Simple, the French restaurant in the middle of nowhere.