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Published: 9 July 2009

Soul Power gives a remarkable insight into James Brown and other great black performers
A knockout sideshow to the ‘rumble in the jungle’

Directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Certificate 12a

IT is not generally known that when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman headed to Zaire in 1974 to contest the heavyweight championship of the world, other heroes of black American culture made the transatlantic journey to offer an alternative to the grand old punch-up.
James Brown, BB King, Bill Withers and The Spinners joined performers Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars at a three-day festival in a sports stadium in Kinshasa.
Soul Power draws on contemporary footage, with oodles of amazing behind-the-scenes moments as well as soaring onstage performances, to tell the story of the concert and celebrate some of the greatest artists the soul and rhythm and blues movement has produced.
Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte had worked on the Ali film When We Were Kings, and while doing so discovered reams of footage of the festival and the build-up to it that had never been broadcast. He couldn’t resist sweeping it all up off the cutting-room floor and splicing it together. The result is a fascinating concert interspersed with shots of life in Kinshasa, the excitement caused by the fight and the festival, and a study of the country’s own musical heritage.
The “Rumble in the Jungle” has been well chronicled, of course. And Ali’s motives for fighting Foreman there have also been thoroughly covered.
We are given an access all areas pass and can hear BB King discussing his set after he played, dripping with sweat, and umming and ahhing if he gave the crowd what they wanted. You can’t help but be utterly charmed by watching the backing singers rehearse their moves and warming up the vocal chords, or intrigued by Don King talking with Ali about “Soul Brother Number One”.
Although the whole package is incredible, from the outfits the stars and concert-goers wear to the 70s feel of the colour film used, the film stands alone on the strength of the incredible music. The funkiness of the horn section and the heavy wah-wah of the guitars, the soaring vocals of the leads and the steps of the backing singers.
Ali, as ever, is always watchable. You get a tantalising taste of what he was like when he was working to regain his crown: he launches into a high-powered ramble about his first thoughts on Zaire. “I was told it was all a dangerous jungle,” he spits into the camera, “but New York City is a bigger jungle than here.” He rattles off the problems African-Americans face back home and then compares it to the black state in Zaire. It sounds very much like a speech by Marcus Garvey and reveals the desperation Ali felt over the racism he had faced.
While this film studiously ignores some of the issues that matter, such as why Foreman and Ali travelled to the African state to slug it out, it is a delirious celebration of a generation of black Americans who stood up and said it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud.

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