Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The rumble before the ‘Rumble’

Posted on Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Soul Power
Director: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Cast: Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Celia Cruz, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba
Release Date: 2009-09-02
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Film

“You can’t be liberated … and broke.”

-James Brown to Don King in Soul Power

“We should invite Nelson Mandela to this thing,” said Carlos Santana on September 10, 2001, after rehearsing for the next day’s Latin Grammy Awards (which were canceled after the 9/11 attacks). “After all, all we do is African
music.”

He was mainly referring to Latin music, and he was right. But he could’ve referred to rock ’n’ roll, and he would’ve been right as well: A great chunk of mainstream pop music is nothing but white dudes stealing from black dudes — funk and R&B are nothing but black, and don’t even get me started on jazz.

That’s why the performers in Soul Power, a powerful documentary on the three-day music festival that preceded the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo), exude an unusual shine in their eyes. Sure, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, both take “Euphoria” as a middle name, but this was special.

“We evolved from opposite sides, and now we meet each other,” said Bill “Lean On Me” Whithers, one of the stars of the fest, to the crowd. “Souvenirs? I’m going to bring back feelings!”

It was a musical celebration (most performers were at the top of their games), an economic manifesto (it was Don King’s first mega fight as a promoter, guaranteeing $5 million to each fighter), and an astonishing encounter of styles (B. B. King trying to follow Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars in a celebration 35,000 feet above sea level on the way to Zaire is worth the ticket price alone).

While the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings kept the musical performances to a minimum and concentrated on the fight and the fighters, Soul Power focuses on the festival and, mainly, on the buildup and behind-the-scenes of Zaire 74, which was unjustly overlooked due to the fight’s six-week postponement when Foreman suffered an injury in training.

“We can’t stop now; we need to go on with the show,” said one of the organizers, when someone suggested that the festival be canceled as well. Cancel this. For each performer, the concerts had a life of their own, independent of the fight.

Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, an editor for When We Were Kings, could not believe all the footage that Kings director Leon Gast was inevitably leaving out, and was able to assemble a magical trip that puts you right in the center of Kinshasa.

Even though Ali (as was the case in Kings) is a major player in the movie, the true star here is a peak-condition James Brown, who chillingly (and often hilariously) starts and ends the movie. In between, you have show-stopping performances, including Withers’ gorgeously minimalist acoustic version of “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” which reminds us that his vocal skills were as great as his songwriting ability; B. B. King’s precise rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone”; African Goddess Miriam Makeba in a haunting larger-than-life explanation of “The Clicking Song”; a monster conga solo by Danny “Big Black” Ray; and inspired performances by the Spinners, an early-early incarnation of Sister Sledge; the Crusaders; and some of the most popular Zairean bands of their time (with no reason to envy the American superstars, and that includes, in one scene, an incredible street band).

But just like Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” stopped the show at Woodstock in ’69, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars (both at their peak) left no survivors with a stirring rendition of “Químbara” and an unforgettable percussion jam by Ray Barreto (congas), Roberto Roena (bongo), and Nicky Marrero (timbal) during Barreto’s “Ponte Duro.” And, yes, that’s Héctor Lavoe (arguably the greatest salsa singer ever) singing backup vocals for Celia and bodysurfing the crowd.

Soul Power is the natural, perfect companion to When We Were Kings, but watch it first. As a preamble to one of the greatest fights of all time, it’s arguably the most significant assembly of African-American and Latin musicians ever, and the footage — as good as the superb performances — turns this into perhaps the best movie ever made from outtakes.

“God made me the biggest athlete and entertainer in the world,” said Ali with his usual humility. “Now it’s my duty to whoop this guy.” Six weeks later, Ali did just that, when nobody thought it was possible. If you like music and film, this movie will hit like Ali’s right hand on Foreman’s chin. But you’ll leave feeling better than James Brown.

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