Programme Notes: Soul Power
Not many sporting events can claim the kind of historical significance as 1974’s “Rumble In The Jungle”, a heavyweight-boxing match between reigning champion George Foreman and the outspoken and controversial challenger, Muhammad Ali. This monumental clash of the titans played out in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30. The occasion may have centered on conflict but it was marked to promote the unification between African-Americans and the people of the African continent itself.
Of course, Ali would take Foreman’s belt home and the western world’s view of Africa and its people were forever changed. Those legendary eight rounds of fisticuffs, however, overshadowed another event coinciding with the bout, which at the time at least, had almost equal significance: Zaire 74 - The Spiritual Connection. Masterminded by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, this concert extravaganza brought together African musicians with some of the most popular African-American recording artists of the time, such as The Spinners, The Crusaders, Fania All Stars, BB King, Bill Withers and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
Leon Gast’s Oscar winning When We Were Kings (1996) documented these events by splicing 22-year-old interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage, which had become tied up in a legal rights dispute with its Liberian financiers, with contemporary talking heads, ranging from Spike Lee to Norman Mailer, who offered anecdotes and contextual commentary. Despite occasional glimpses of the concert performances, little credence was given to the festival. With Soul Power, that has now been remedied.
Towards the end of Soul Power, Brown proclaims: “Don’t bury me while I yet live”, which is precisely what director Jeff Levy-Hinte has done with more than 125 hours of outtake footage from When We Were Kings. In his own words, “I always had the sense that we were committing acrime by putting all this great material back in the vault”.
Levy-Hinte acted as editor on Gast’s superb, definitive documentary before embarking on a successful career as an independent producer. His company, Antidote Films aims “to counter everything in filmmaking that is banal, lifeless and lacking in passion”, and has produced films such as Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002), Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003) and Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004). With these credentials established, Levy-Hinte returned after ten years to the vault to make what would become his directorial debut: “Frankly if I had the money, I would have hired a director… by accident and by design, I ended up moving into the director’s role”.
Salvage operations are not uncommon in cinema. Poverty Row journeymen, Roger Corman protégés, action-adventure television producers and Hong Kong journeymen made careers out of re-using sets, costumes and footage from existing works. More specifically, Derek Jarman’s Glitterbug (1994) combined twenty years of home movies, location B roll and short film footage into a posthumous paean to the moving image. David Lynch famously reworked an unaired television pilot into his Oscar nominated masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001) while Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s ‘making of’ DVD extras for Terry Gilliam’s as yet unfinished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote became the heartbreaking Lost In La Mancha (2002). A video diary of prodigious upstart Troy Duffy’s fall from filmmaking grace became the cautionary Overnight (2003) and Jonathan Caouette utilised the latest digital editing technology to piece together the
images of his troubled youth in Tarnation (2003).
While those films were about their makers experimenting with means of artistic expression or crafting morality tales of mythic proportions out of real events, Levy-Hinte’s goal is to generate awareness of an event that never received the credit or coverage it deserved. “The real reason to return to it [the footage] is to be able to explore the music festival element, which was present in Kings… but was subordinate. What would Woodstock have been without the film or the recordings? It would have been a bunch of hippies saying that this was an amazing thing, but it became an iconic cultural event precisely because of the way in which it was distributed through media.”
In spite of an identical archive image base, Soul Power is very different, formally at least, from When We Were Kings. Gast’s was a more traditional documentary experience, whereas Levy-Hinte’s is closer to the “Direct Cinema” pioneered by the likes of Robert Drew’s Primary (1967) and D.A Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). Taking advantage of lightweight 16 mm cameras and innovations in mobile sound recording technology, these filmmakers often neglected voiceovers, interviews, or previsualised staging in favour of long takes, unrehearsed framing and a disregard for traditional film grammar, the cameraman right in the thick of the action with lens flare and constant shifts in focus taken as a given. Levy-Hinte’s remit was to pay homage to “the time, to the event, to that style of filmmaking”.
It may seem churlish to keep mentioning When We Were Kings since a prior viewing of that film, while helpful, isn’t crucial. Yet as a companion piece, Soul Power compliments the former beautifully. Although a celebration of the festivities, Kings… was also unafraid of pointing out the contradictions of the event. Levy-Hinte includes footage of the concert crowd pledging allegiance to the image of their leader, while a huge street sign proclaims in French and English that “Black Power is sought everywhere, but is already realised here in Zaire”. In the earlier film, by contrast, Mailer and George Plimpton address the hypocrisy of any humanitarian political grandstanding since Zaire was under the control of CIA backed Mobutu Sese Seko who had deposed a democratically elected nationalist, Patrice Lamumba, and was now ruling the nation with fear and bloodshed.
Soul Power is nonetheless a fascinating time capsule filled with powerful and still resonant insights. Hardly surprising, when you consider that such noted concert and “rockumentary” filmmakers and cameramen such as Albert Maysles, Gimme Shelter (1970) Roderick “Kwaku” Young, Wattstax (1974) and Paul Goldsmith, Rust Never Sleeps (1979), were behind the lens.
Levy-Hinte has suggested a third film devoted entirely to the concert footage could be in the works: on this evidence that would be more than welcome. With so much more to come, there’s no danger of Zaire 74 being buried. Not while it yet lives.
DVD Editor – The Skinny for Glasgow Film Theatre, July 2009
Quotes taken online from:
Flavor Wire and Eclipse Magazine