‘Soul Power’ bows to ‘Rum­ble’

> Doc­u­men­tary dances with song, stum­bles as fight’s spar­ring part­ner

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

Con­structed from footage shot in 1974, mostly in Zaire, Africa, the con­cert doc­u­men­tary “Soul Power” show­cases “some of the most dy­namic per­form­ers from Afro Amer­ica,” in the words of pro­moter Don King.

The lineup in­cludes B.B. King, the Spin­ners, Bill Withers and James Brown, along with Cuba’s Celia Cruz, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, the Congo’s Tabu Ley Rochereau and the Fa­nia All-Stars, a Latin en­sem­ble fea­tur­ing band­leader Johnny Pacheco and conga player Ray Bar­retto.

Brown, wear­ing a thick mus­tache to com­ple­ment his sculpted wave of hair, is es­pe­cially strik­ing, zipped into a jump­suit with the ini­tials GFOS (for “God­fa­ther of Soul”) punched into the waist­line in metal­lic studs. The suit is skintight but stretchy, and it doesn’t in­hibit the sig­na­ture splits and funky spasms of the en­ter­tainer who is in­tro­duced with a prom­ise to “make your liver quiver” and “your blad­der splat­ter.”

De­spite the vin­tage vi­su­als (dig those side­burns, bell bot­toms and suede hats) and the fine per­for­mances, “Soul Power” isn’t en­tirely sat­is­fy­ing. A se­quel of sorts to the su­perb 1996 doc­u­men­tary “When We Were Kings,” “Soul Power” may be the first movie man­u­fac­tured, es­sen­tially, from what a DVD menu would la­bel “deleted scenes.”

“When We Were Kings” ex­am­ined the so-called “Rum­ble in the Jun­gle,” the fa­mous 1974 prize­fight in Zaire in which Muham­mad Ali re­cap­tured the heavy­weight ti­tle from Ge­orge Fore­man. “Soul Power” nar­rows its fo­cus to the three-day “Zaire 74” mu­sic fest that was organized by Amer­i­can record pro­ducer Ste­wart Levine and South African jazz mu­si­cian Hugh Masekela, in con­junc­tion with the fight.

Un­like “Kings,” which was di­rected by Leon Gast, “Soul Power,” di­rected by “Kings” ed­i­tor Jef­frey Levy-Hinte, doesn’t use in­ter­views or any other nar­ra­tive de­vices to place its footage into any sort of his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural con­text. This may not bother those who’ve seen “Kings” or are fa­mil­iar with the per­form­ers, but oth­ers may feel like guests at a party where they don’t know any­body — a party at which they ar­rived too early. (The movie kills time with about a half-hour of pre-con­cert buildup; did we re­ally need so many shots of the stage be­ing built?)

Adding to the sense that this is a com­pan­ion piece to “Kings” rather than a work that can stand on its own is the over­lap be­tween the films. De­spite the pres­ence of Brown, the most com­mand­ing fig­ure in “Soul Power” is a non-mu­si­cian: the out­spo­ken yet sly Muham­mad Ali, seen hang­ing out, with a sort of re­gal non­cha­lance, prior to the con­certs. “No kid­ding, New York is more of a jun­gle than here,” he com­ments. “Re­ally, the sav­age is in Amer­ica.”

More provoca­tively, he as­serts: “We white and black are not broth­ers.” Yet he’s also hi­lar­i­ous; spy­ing a fa­mil­iar face, he of­fers this greet­ing: “Stokely Carmichael — don’t you burn up noth­ing over here!”

“Soul Power” is at the Malco Ridge­way Four.

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