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Music saves Soul Power

'Black Woodstock' documentary is a bit self-important, but it's a pretty good concert movie

By Philip Martin

This article was published September 4, 2009 at 5:34 a.m.

left-to-right-muhammad-ali-bill-withers-and-don-king-photo-courtesy-of-antidote-films-a-property-of-sony-pictures-classics-all-rights-reserved

Left to Right: Muhammad Ali, Bill Withers, and Don King. Photo Courtesy of Antidote Films ©, Property of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.

— Alternately exhilarating and bewildering, Soul Power is an intensely interesting, if not always completely arresting, look at a nearly lost concert. Zaire 74 was imagined as a kind of "black Woodstock" that would serve as a summit meeting of black American, African and Cuban soul musicians and as a baldly commercial venture that would play to audiences in movie houses around the world.

Things didn't work out, and 125 hours of raw footage shot by Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Roderick Young, and Albert Maysles was left almost forgotten in the vaults for 35 years.

Now those (surprisingly sharp and well-preserved) images have been assembled by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte into a more or-less conventional souvenir of the three-night festival of soul music in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The festival, featuring James Brown, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and dozens of other acts, was intended to coincide with the "Rumble in the Jungle," the legendary 1974 heavyweight title match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

But Foreman was cut while training for the fight, necessitating that it be pushed back six weeks. The promoters of the festival, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American record producer Stewart Levine, elected not to postpone the concert, forgoing the international attention a close connection with the fight would have brought. (The showwas doubly blighted when, in 1996, Leon Gast decided not to use any of the footage in his powerful - and Oscar-winning - film about the Ali-Foreman fight and its cultural moment, When We Were Kings. Levy-Hinte worked as an editor on thatfilm, and had the opportunity to view a lot of the concert footage.)

And while the film features some electric performances - especially by Cruz and Bill Withers, with the everenthusiastic Brown seeming the slightest bit flat - it also feels a little padded, and some of the offstage stuff has about it a whiff of inauthenticity.

It'sas if we can sense the anticipation of the organizers, who assumed that their concert would become legendary. (Ali, however calculated his rants, never fails to charm. He's as much of an actor as Bob Dylan was in Don't Look Back.)

Despite its virtues, Soul Power feels like an accessory to Gast's When We Were Kings (considering the current state of soul music, that title could serve both movies), something like a DVD special feature. Yet if you are a fan of any of the musicians mentioned - or maybe I should say if you're completely unfamiliar with any of the musicians mentioned - then Soul Power is well worth seeing. Or at least hearing.

MovieStyle, Pages 35, 40 on 09/04/2009

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