Bring the Beat Home

The documentary, "Soul Power," captures a moment in African-American music during the 1970s: testing its boundaries in Kinshasa, Zaire.

From the original film poster.

The opening scene: Soul Brother No. 1 dressed in a skin tight matador-cum-gimp suit, drop-kicking the mic, screeching, roaring, galvanizing a Congolese crowd into pure hysteria, while chanting ‘I’m black and I’m proud’, so camp as to be almost melting. This is Zaire ’74, the little known concert to accompany the mega-fight Rumble in The Jungle between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, and the subject of Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s “Soul Power” (2009), now released on DVD by Eureka Video. It’s a riotous, uplifting film. It dazzles in its capture of the glitter and bare-chested kitsch of the 70s black soul acts and their ‘homecoming’ to Kinshasa. Masterfully edited from the off-cuts of Leon Gast’s Oscar winning documentary “When We Were Kings” (1994), Levy-Hinte’s devotion to the material is palpable, and yet there remains a discrete critical distance.

The greats of 1970s soul were there: BB King, Bill Withers, James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Sister Sledge, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and Fania All Stars. “Soul Power” captures a moment in African-American music during the 1970s that was exploring its own associations, testing its boundaries. Scenes in a hotel dining room in New York, the night before departure, fizz with the furious excitement of organizers to ‘bring the beat home’; the almost frantic determinism of the performers to re-locate blackness as authentically ‘African’ is the subject of every exchange on film.

Muhammed Ali’s philosophizing runs as a meta-commentary throughout the film, as Levy-Hinte’s editing allows for shots of Ali’s political freestyling to continue at length without cutting; “I thought the Congo was a lot of jungle and little rough mau mau’s moving around attackin’ … some people scared to come over here. It ain’t so bad. New York is more of a jungle that here.” At times, the film seems to capture Ali in a spoken-word trance, freely exploring and (re)formulating his ideas, live.

“Black Power is sought everywhere, but it is already realized here in Zaire,” reads a billboard at the concert’s stadium ground, which cuts to a brief shot of Mobutu Sese Seko’s portrait on the side of a building, leopard-print cap at its now iconic jaunt. The original footage seems to lack any interaction with Kinshasa as a place, instead reflecting the bubble of political rhetoric that the performers created for themselves, but didn’t share with their ‘brothers’ on the streets outside. By 1974, Mobutu already far into a violent campaign of ‘authenticity’ aimed at eradicating all European influences in Congolese culture but which inevitably frayed into violence towards his colleagues too, and which by ’74 had already morphed into untrammelled dictatorship. But acknowledgement of this, or even a hint, is completely absent from “Soul Power,” perhaps a sharp indication of the murky relationship between the US and Mobutu’s regime at the time.

But apart from a lack of political content, which through its absence becomes a another (silent) meta narrative of the film, “Soul Power” is above all an astounding document of soul. Bill Withers gives a spine-tingling performance, an almost masochistic rendition of ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier’; he tests himself emotionally and physically on stage, humming on the verge, holding a note for what seems an eternity while beads of sweat bulb onto his forehead. Cut with James Brown’s impish energy, Soul Power manages to capture the best of 70s black soul at a moment when it was exploring itself politically, emotionally, while keeping a critical distance, allowing the whole motivation for a musical ‘homecoming’ to be investigated.

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