Occasionally, it seems as though the Gods of Entertainment have opened my brain to see what media treat will make me happiest. For example, they blended the slapstick of cartoons with elaborate combat ballet in Kung Fu Hustle. So when I heard that a documentary combining soul music, Africa, and boxing would be playing this weekend, I felt similarly blessed.
Soul Power tells the story of the grandiose concert festival held in 1974 Zaire to commemorate the country’s independence from colonial control. Little did we know then the devastating impact that Mobutu was to have on this nation in the following decades. In the early 70s, though, for Africans and African-Americans alike, it was a time for redefining autonomy and personal identity.
The concert gathered many prominent Western-hemisphere musicians with their West African counterparts — a 3-day celebration originally to coincide with the spectacular “Rumble In The Jungle” bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The sense of elation, glamour, and wonder is palatable. Everyone was deeply moved, as was I upon viewing. Here, some of the most legendary figures in American entertainment are asked to examine themselves and their place in the world, and to express it onstage to their welcoming African hosts. [Editor’s Note: Soul Power is essentially the music spin-off of the equally excellent When We Were Kings — a documentary about the Ali/Foreman bout. You really can’t watch one without the other.]
Here, we see the Spinners as consummate entertainers, bringing joy with song and dance and coordinated silver-lame appliques. We see B.B. King as the disciplined, excellence-driven guitar maestro and band leader. We see Bill Withers, vulnerable, tender, generous. Celia Cruz and her band whip the crowd into a froth. Miriam Makeba is ebullient, elegant.
Of course, the real stars of the show are Muhammad Ali and James Brown, men of such incredible star-quality that even in these powder-keg times are essentially post-race figureheads. Ali, with his talent and bravado, addresses directly what’s in the back of everyone’s mind – how Americans of African decent must relate to their lives in the West. But James Brown is mostly taciturn. You see him relating his experience strictly in relation to himself, to the moment. At every turn one can almost hear him thinking “What’s good for James Brown?” This occurs most notably as he zones out while Don King — that seemingly endless fount of solid-gold bullshit — espouses sentiments of brotherhood and oneness. We get the feeling that JB just wants to get on stage in his bedazzled jumpsuit, do his splits, sweat, and be James Brown. The results are, of course, electrifying. This was James Brown’s time: his moustache was made of thunder, his cape made of fire.
We can all give the entertainment gods a hearty round of applause for James Brown just being James Brown. At the very end of the film, JB offers the most profound and simplest synopsis of the experiences of those who were there to witness this incredible event. But for James Brown, it was how he’d been doin it all along.