Conga in the Congo

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

FANS OF When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s mag­nif­i­cent doc­u­men­tary about the Rum­ble in the Jun­gle, will re­call that, be­fore Ge­orge Forman and Muham­mad Ali got it on in Kin­shasa, a con­cert took place in that cen­tral African city. It took more than two decades for Gast’s footage to make it into a fea­ture and an­other 13 years for Jef­frey Levy-Hinte to edit shots of such lu­mi­nar­ies as James Brown, The Spin­ners, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba into this con­cert film. The wait has been worth it.

Pre­sented without a voiceover, Soul Power be­gins with clips of wor­ried men in large-col­lared shirts speak­ing wor­riedly into tele­phones. Forman has in­jured his eye and the Zaire 74 fes­ti­val will now take place some weeks be­fore the fight it­self.

Shot by the likes of Al­bert Maysles, the footage cuts be­tween the artists pre­par­ing them­selves and the Ali en­tourage cool­ing their nippy heels. A jolly Ge­orge Plimp­ton, sheets proudly to the wind, stag­gers be­fore the cam­era and smiles broadly. Ali him­self chats to the doc­u­men­tary mak­ers.

Harder men than me might com­plain that the film doesn’t ad­dress the cor­rup­tion and op­pres­sion of the Zairean state. Much of that ma­te­rial is, how­ever, to be found in When We Were Kings, and most sen­si­ble view­ers will see through the naivety of Ali’s slightly pa­tro­n­is­ing eu­lo­gies to the hon­est, idyl­lic African life. “New York’s the real jun­gle,” he says.

At any rate, Soul Power’s main pur­pose is to cel­e­brate some of the best black mu­sic of the era, and the per­for­mances by Bill Withers (un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally gruff) and James Brown (glo­ri­ously dis­ci­plined) don’t dis­ap­point.

The most im­pres­sive turn, how­ever, comes from the dig­ni­fied Miriam Makeba. “Peo­ple al­ways ask: ‘How do you make that sound?’” she says be­fore de­liv­er­ing a gor­geous per­for­mance of the ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled Click Song.

“I tell them it’s my na­tive tongue.” She’s smil­ing, but a lot of folks in the wings prob­a­bly felt prop­erly told off.

The God­fa­ther of Soul, James Brown, belts one out in Kin­shasa

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