Sparingly touched upon in 1996’s Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings, the three-day, all-star Zaire ‘74 music festival that ran alongside Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s epic Rumble in the Jungle fight receives the spotlight treatment in Soul Power. Directed by Kings editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, this amiable if slight doc is culled from the hours of footage left out of its predecessor, and the results are unsurprisingly underwhelming, less because of the performances captured than because there’s no substantive story to tell. Concocted by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine (the latter heard, with stoned-red eyes, not-so-cryptically referring to an extra 32 pounds of luggage), and promoted by Don King, Zaire ‘74 brought together African-American and African artists on stage in Kinshasa, Africa, the underlying intent being to present and promote racial/cultural solidarity. Bill Withers, B.B. King, and headliner James Brown all espouse a desire to reconnect with their ancestral home, a sentiment frequently heard but rarely explored, given that Levy-Hinte relegates himself to using only footage shot at the event.
Soul Power spends its first half documenting the humdrum buildup to the show, which is dominated by canned press conferences, photo opportunities, and dull-as-dirt snippets of an investment firm representative mildly fretting over logistical non-issues. Once the legends hit the stage, the film finds a more comfortable groove, with Withers’s mesmerizing rendition of “Hope She’ll be Happier” and Brown’s rollicking “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” proving two of the standouts. Still, there’s little rhythm or depth to Levy-Hinte’s affectionate portrait. The optimism felt, and returning-to-our-roots declarations made, by many of those involved are undercut by Brown’s surprisingly candid admission that he will “not get liberated broke,” as well as the unmentioned tyranny of concert benefactor, Zairian president Mobuto, whose giant portraits are seen looming above the city. Furthermore, while Brown is a magnetic figure, the sporadic appearances by Ali hopelessly unbalance the proceedings, his fiercely outspoken interviews providing the only morsels of substance and, consequently, throwing into sharp relief Zaire ‘74’s status, in relation to Ali-Forman, as the occasion’s second-stage.