The summer’s superhero has arrived, and he’s even wearing a cape: James Brown so totally owns the festival documentary Soul Power, grunting and squealing under the credits and vulcanizing the stage in a climactic performance. The time and place is Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974—a three-day celebration of black music tied to the mythic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match. Brown, captured at the peak of his funkiness, lends the doc a title and a vision: global pride via a syncopated strut.
Levy-Hinte, an editor on the essential 1996 Muhammad Ali profile When We Were Kings, probes the idea of black power from a fascinating variety of perspectives, not all of them utopian. A festival promoter welcomes his dream team of American artists (including B.B. King and the Spinners) to a flagship dinner celebrating the concert as “a spiritual commitment.” Meanwhile, Don King hungrily discusses the money angle, roadies gripe, and musicians ogle the women. Elsewhere, a beautiful African mother swaddles her two young children to her body and sets off to hand wash laundry, a keen sequence reminding us of the massive disparity in realities.
Music can’t be the sole salvation in a country where Mobuto Sese Seko looms down from huge posters; it’s also why a nonmusician, the diamond-sharp Ali, offers the doc’s most powerful political moments, saluting his black airline pilot and excoriating white violence. The fighter is about to become legend, and that tale is more compelling. But watching Soul Power and its inspired stage work, you can almost believe that tunefulness is story enough.