After Leon Gast finally finished his extraordinary, decades-in-the-making 1996 documentary When We Were Kings—a chronicle of the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Forman in Kishasha, Zaire, and one of the greatest movies ever made about sports—he left about 125 hours of footage on the cutting room floor, a fact that never sat well with editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte.
What suffered most in the cutting was the three-day musical extravaganza preceding the bout, which some called the “Black Power Woodstock,” headlined by James Brown. BB King, Bill Withers, the Spinners, Celia Cruz and Miriam Makeba all flew to Africa for the event, a moment overshadowed in the history books by the clash of the titans that followed.
Soul Power finds Levy-Hinte drifting through the leftover footage, focusing on the concert with a free-flowing verite style that too often feels directionless. The film consists of terrific musical numbers, punctuated by a few hardly revelatory, caught-on-the-fly backstage interactions of varying fascination, depending on your interest in the subjects.
James Brown, decked out in a one-piece jumpsuit bedazzled with “GFOS” on the chest, brings it in all his dynamic, overheated glory. Withers does a solemn, scalding “Hope She’s Happier,” and it’s always a kick to watch the Spinners and their synchronized dancing. King gets short shrift, just “The Thrill Is Gone,” then so is he.
Levy-Hinte tries to explore the logistical nightmares of mounting an event on this scale, but there’s only so much time we can spend watching people setting up lighting grids and eavesdropping on the technical specs. Sure, everybody wants to be the Maysles Brothers, but sometimes you need a narrator or a talking head to lay things out, if only for clarity’s sake.
The rest of Soul Power’s treats lie in people-watching. George Plimpton shows up drunk, occasionally we see Ali riffing and chanting, and it’s nice to be reminded that James Brown was as insane off-stage as he was on. But the film feels more like the deleted scenes collection on an upcoming When We Were Kings DVD than an actual movie in its own right. Soul Power is a footnote to a masterpiece. C