Film Review: Soul Power

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Forum

BERLIN -- There's surely never been a more exhaustively chronicled sporting event than the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but lively documentary "Soul Power" manages to find a fresh new angle on an event that's become such a nostalgic landmark in popular culture.

Essentially a belated follow-up to Leon Gast's 1996 Oscar-winning documentary "When We Were Kings" -- Gast is credited as producer here -- the focus now shifts from the fight itself to the spectacular concert staged nearby in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) three weeks before. Featuring terrific performances from the likes of James Brown and Miriam Makeba, the result is a colorful, fast-moving crowd-pleaser that should score nicely in theaters and later on DVD -- without matching the knockout success of "Kings."

While there's an awful lot to like about this infectious celebration of a remarkable event featuring some superb, larger-than-life performers at the top of their game, the enterprise comes across as a bit of a missed opportunity. Assembled from more than a dozen hours of footage shot for what was intended as an official, authorized documentary about the "Rumble" and the accompanying musical extravaganza ("Zaire '74"), what director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte -- one of four editors on "When We Were Kings" -- ends up with is a conventional, chronological survey restricted by his decision to use no material other than what was originally shot.

The original intention was to edit and release a film as soon as possible after the concert and fight, but tortuous legal wrangles meant that the material lay untouched for decades. Despite this passage of time, "Soul Power" still feels very much like an authorized, approved version of what was -- given the logistics and individuals involved -- surely a wilder, more chaotic and more interesting affair than what's captured on screen. A real-life "Nashville" this most certainly ain't, though there are a couple of brief moments which intriguingly point in that kind of direction.

In addition, now that the full despotism of Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko (under whose auspices both fight and concert were organized, partly to boost his global profile) is known, the ebullience and optimism of the performers and organizers takes on a bitterly ironic air. It's to the filmmakers' discredit that no mention is made of this thorny political context -- what "analysis" there is actually comes from a charismatic-as-ever Ali -- especially as many audiences may not know much about Mobutu and his misdeeds. And it might have helped if they'd included a word or two about that three-decade delay between the concert and the appearance of the film.

The majority of viewers will, of course, simply revel in "Soul Power" as an excuse to see Brown, Makeba, B.B. King (and Lucille!), et al, on the big screen, with the benefit of great sound, via fresh-feeling footage that could almost have been shot yesterday. True soul, however, is all about going much deeper than the movie ever really attempts: There are times when just coming from the heart isn't quite enough.

Director: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte.
Producers: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, David Sonenberg, Leon Gast.
Directors of photography: Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, Roderick Young.
Editor: David Smith.
Production company: Antidote Films (New York)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.

No rating, 93 minutes.
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