Soul Power Review

"We're gonna be met by a country that expected a fight.
Instead they're gonna get the greatest musical performance that ever was."

The fight was the famous bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, dubbed the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. The musical performance was ‘Zaire 74’, a three-day festival intended to coincide with the ‘Rumble’ and bring together African and African-American musicians, much like the 1971 Ghanaian concert ‘Soul to Soul’ documented in the film of the same name. The fight was postponed by six weeks owing to a shoulder injury Foreman incurred in training, putting the festival in jeopardy. But it went ahead regardless and, consequently, has been somewhat written out of history. The Ali-Foreman contest became the subject of Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, an excellent film that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1996. Gast paid moderate lip service to ‘Zaire 74’, but it became nothing more than a subplot to his bigger concern. Thankfully, one of his editors on Kings, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, saw the scope in the original concert, the result being 2008’s Soul Power.

Consequently When We Were Kings does cast a shadow, especially as Ali and promoter Don King both figure quite prominently amongst the assembled footage. And yet Soul Power is very much a different kind of documentary. The footage is the film, with Gast’s collection of talking heads (the likes of Norman Mailer and Spike Lee offering retrospective perspectives on the ‘Rumble’) instead replaced by the occasional subtle intertitle to relay any essential contextualising information. No foreknowledge of When We Were Kings, or indeed the ‘Zaire 74’ concert itself, are necessary; Soul Power is a companion piece in the very best sense of the word. There is no reason to have seen one of the documentaries before the other, though of course they do complement each other really quite nicely despite one being easily tagged as a ‘sports’ doc and the other fitting more comfortably alongside the likes of Woodstock, Wattstax or Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Because Soul Power, of course, is predominantly about the music. The images of James Brown that have graced all of the film’s posters and DVD sleeves (including this one) and his prominent placing both over the opening credits and to see Soul Power out confirm as much. (Both stunning powerhouse performances, by the way, at once retaining the tightness for which Brown was known and seemingly more relaxed than was usual.) Yet whilst Brown may get ‘top billing’ as it were, director Levy-Hinte makes sure that he encapsulates the diversity of the festival over its three days. Thus those figures who would be deemed the big hitters to majority of Soul Power’s audience - Bill Withers, B.B. King, The Spinners - are given as much time as Brown and, more to the point, so are some of the African performers who also played. It must have been a daunting task for Levy-Hinte to whittle down three days in just over 90 minutes of feature film, yet he has handled task especially well. The vast majority of the performances really do stand out. This isn’t just the James Brown show, so to speak; the likes of Miriam Makeba easily give him a run for his money.

Equally impressive is the fact that Levy-Hinte has such terrific footage to work from. The cinematographers behind this material were, in alphabetical order, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles and Roderick Young who, between them, have worked on David Holzman’s Diary, Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, Harlan County USA, The Animals Film, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, and Wattstax, to name just a few. A pretty impressive collective c.v., and indeed it shows. From their raw material Levy-Hinte is always able to find the right shot, cut at the right moment and, generally, just capture these performances. Any doubts about Soul Power documenting its event 34 years after the fact, and relying solely on stuff from the archives, are firmly set to one side.

In this respect comparisons with Murray Lerner’s Message to Love (which documented the 1970 Isle of Wight, again entirely from footage shot at the time, but compiled and released in 1997) are undoubtedly apt, though Soul Power may have the edge from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Moreover, both films also spend time looking at the machinations going on backstage. In Message to Love this resulted in some fascinating moments, particularly those featuring MC and promoter Ricki Farr. Soul Power’s equivalent is, of course, Muhammad Ali himself, here variously caught ‘off-duty’ as he takes in the local culture and/or delivers his soundbite-heavy monologues to camera. Yet Ali isn’t the only off-stage presence caught in the cameramen’s sights. As with the Lerner film there are plenty of glimpses into the pressures of putting on a huge event, scenes of the performers relaxing, jamming and the like, plus the odd little diversion around Zaire itself. Admittedly there’s nothing truly essential here, yet just as When We Were Kings gained a great deal from not being simply about the fight itself but also about the various other factors entering its orbit, so too Soul Power feeds off its ability to deliver that slightly bigger picture.

Finally, it is worth noting that this really is an uncomplicated affair despite this mixture, and as such Soul Power is an excellent candidate for repeat viewings. Of course, many of the performances captured are going to have you coming back for more, yet even as a whole the overall relaxed nature prevents a simple ‘skip-to-the-best-chapter’ situation. The various concert movies mentioned throughout this review, from Woodstock and Wattstax to Gimme Shelter and Message to Love have found a new companion in the ‘rock doc’ pantheon of greats.

The Disc

Soul Power has been released by Masters of Cinema on both standard definition DVD and Blu-ray. This is the standard def version under review, yet even if this format it would be very hard not to be impressed by the presentation we get here. The disc comes in the NTSC format and is region free, whilst the film itself is in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It is worth pointing out that all of the original 16mm footage had to be cleaned-up and restored before Soul Power was edited and as such it arrives in flawless condition. The grain structure is exactly as it should be, the colours show no signs of fading or any kinds of degradation over the years and the soundtrack is similarly flawless. Indeed, this standard definition release comes ‘only’ in DD2.0 format but nonetheless packs an almighty punch, especially during the more explosive moments (read: James Brown), though that is not to say that those quieter, more vérité moments don’t come off just as well.

As for extras Soul Power is unfortunately missing the commentary that has since graced Sony’s US release of the film onto DVD. Recorded by Levy-Hinte and the original ‘Zaire 74’ concert producer Stewart Levine, the track had not been completed at editing stage by Sony in time for its release by MoC, hence its lack of inclusion. In its place, however, we do find a brief six-minute interview with the director (particularly interesting are the reasons behind just why all of this archive material was left in the vaults for so long prior to Soul Power and When We Were Kings before it) plus Levy-Hinte’s notes on the film included in the 36-page booklet, both of which are exclusive to this disc. Elsewhere we find five additional scenes taking us further behind the scenes of the original concert (totalling approximately 30 minutes) as well as five more performances from the festival, including more James Brown. As with the main feature the combination of both once again allows us that little extra insight and context, though you can understand their excision given just how streamlined Soul Power is as a whole. A final note: all of these additional scenes and performances have not been restored by Levy-Hinte and so come letterboxed as opposed to being anamorphically presented. Nonetheless, there are no discernible flaws in the materials to prevent the viewer’s enjoyment otherwise.

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