James Brown never floated like a butterfly, but boy could he kick it in a bellbottom jumpsuit. The "hardest working man in show business" earned his crown here, with a frenetic, sweat-soaked headline performance that kills in this engrossing, if somewhat spotty, doc.
Essentially a companion to the superior Oscar-winner When We Were Kings, Soul Power is culled from 1974 footage shot around the Ali-Foreman heavyweight title fight, set in what was then the Republic of Zaire. A three-day music fest coincided, featuring James Brown, B.B King, the Spinners and Bill Withers, alongside African acts such as singer-activist Miriam Makeba. Unfortunately, Foreman got hurt while sparring, the bout was postponed, and the concert became the star attraction. The fight was a phenomenon, the concert only a footnote, and no amount of editing can rectify that.
In the lead-up to the concert, we see oily huckster Don King spouting epic flimflam, and music promoter Lloyd Price attempting to match. The hot air circumvents the concert's earnest cultural exchange and the true joy of those artists still hip-deep in the stateside civil rights struggle.
As Ali marvels at an all-black society full of jumbo jet pilots, hotel managers, reporters and diplomats, there's evidence of how slowly the Zaire gears ran, as promoters slowly slog through layers of bureaucracy.
More, Ali is naturally radiant and alluring, so everything beside him shrinks, yet the film drags focus away from him. Of course, he's not the softer, gentler persona we know from his later years; here he's still against the white man's world, angry at the system's injustices. Sadly we never see the Ali-Forman fight, or get badly needed context. As a raw slice of history Soul Power is terrific; as coherent narrative it mostly flops.
The concert footage is great fun (a big standout is Cuban queen Celia Cruz). But Brown's the star, backed by classically tight deep funk, with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker throwing down.
And stick around through the credits for a timeless message from the Godfather himself.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 31, and Aug. 1, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday, Aug. 2. It also shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 7-8, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9. For info call 313-833-3237.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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