When 'Soul Power' really mattered

I've had a colleague or two inform me that he saw "Soul Power" more as a DVD extra than a movie. And I say to that OK, so it is a DVD extra. At least it's a downright funky DVD extra.

The DVD my friends are referring to is "When We Were Kings," the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary that chronicled the legendary 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, better known as "the Rumble in the Jungle." "Power," produced by Leon Gast (who directed "Kings") and directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, chronicles the three-day music festival that went on before the fight.

While "Power" documents the pre-show preparations that went on among the promoters, crew members, etc.(you can see a younger Don King running around, wearing a dashiki and messing up big words, as usual), the true action comes from the performances, done by a very soulful selection of artists.

It's here where blues guitar great B.B. King does a version of "The Thrill Is Gone," complete with horns that take the place of that song's stirring string section. It's virtually a study in onstage awesomeness. It's here where that underappreciated soul troubadour Bill Withers comes out with an acoustic guitar and performs a beautifully bittersweet rendition of "Hope She'll Be Happier." It's here where South African songstress Miriam Makeba shows how sonorous her native tongue can be when she performs what the colonists call "The Click Song." And I haven't even discussed The Spinners, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, The Crusaders and other acts on the bill.

And, of course, headlining all of this is the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Hitting the stage in a black, ruffly jumpsuit with "GFOS" bedazzled around his waist, with Fred Wesley and the Mighty J.B.'s backing him up, Brown slides and glides through his set, never letting up and reminding viewers just how bad Soul Brother No. 1 was back in the day.

"Power" occasionally checks in with the Champ (and not George Foreman) to see how he's getting prepared. Anyone who has seen "Kings" or the Will Smith biopic "Ali" or knows anything about that fight knows that Ali had a lot on his mind, as he was looking to regain his championship after having it taken away for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War. So it almost doesn't seem that surprising to find ol' Cassius acting and talking like the festival is more of a distraction than a celebration.

And judging from a scene in which he's forced to playfully spar with a Spinners member, the man didn't even want to be bothered with these performers.

Nevertheless, "Power" nicely captures a moment in time when black music artists descended upon an African nation and found their music to be not only embraced and beloved, but also bested. Apparently, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was a place where good music could literally be found on the street, as bands and musicians are seen serenading crowds and passers-by in a couple of scenes. It appears that the musicians were there to drop some of that titular power, but it appears the people were already fully stocked with it.

Back in the day, soul power was everywhere. "Soul Power" shows it still can be.

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