Soul Power – Out of Africa
June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue #329, May 2009.
Set against a backdrop of the biggest prize-fight of all time, a new documentary recaptures Zaire ’74, one of black music’s great, forgotten happenings.
Even 35 years after the event, the sheer gravity of the unlikely, intercontinental coming-together that was Zaire ’74 still isn’t lost on Stewart Levine. The veteran American record producer, who along with South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela organised the little-known music festival cackles at the mere mention of it.
“Oh man, we shipped 50,000 pounds of equipment in there and 400 people, we built a stage and, you know, everything just worked,” he chuckles. “We had the greatest musicians, we had the greatest recording crews, the film crews were of the highest calibre, everybody got paid well and we all just had a ball, man.”
“It was basically a celebration of what was going on at that moment, and when we look back at it, it was really ‘the moment’,” he pauses. “It was the golden moment for black American music.”
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s brilliant new verite documentary Soul Power captures ‘the moment’ – the cream of American soul RnB performing alongside the biggest stars of African music – in the purest way possible. Comprised entirely of vivid archival footage shot on location in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) by legendary verite cinematographers Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles and Roderick Young, the kinetic documentary refuses to call on the genre’s standard tools of trade. There are no subtitles, no narration, no talking heads and no implanted HD video. The stunning concert, the celebratory backstage atmosphere and the Kinshasa streets coalesce with a raw energy.
“I really came to understand that you could kind of become immersed and lost and taken with the pure stream and flow of events,” says Levy-Hinte.
“But as soon as you put anything in there that’s retrospective or outside of that you break that tension. If you added some kind of historical element or detail, there would be no logical place for it to end.”
Planned to coincide with the legendary Muhammad Ali, George Foreman title fight in Kinshasa – which later became the subject of director Leon Gast’s Academy Award-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings – the three-day event brought together a roster like never before. The likes of James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, The Spinner and Bill Withers shared the bill with African music stars of the ilk of Miriam Makeba, Franco and OK Jazz.
But while the festival itself was a watershed, the surrounding circumstances we less kind. Just days before the event, Foreman was injured during a training bout and the fight had to be postponed for six weeks. Zaire ‘74 was forced to go ahead regardless, without the twin-billing and huge publicity of the fight.
It was the first of countless setbacks that would end up casting the event and its footage into obscurity and foil Levine and Masekela’s grand plans of taking the concert to the world and. Indeed, while Ali and Foreman’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ went onto achieve near-mythical status, the 125 hours of film capturing its musical adjunct was all but lost to the cutting room floor.
“It’s just one of those accidents of history in a way,” says Levy-Hinte, who first came across the hours of footage whilst working as an editor on When We Were Kings. “As soon as the concert happened, or even before to be honest, things started to go wrong.”
“One of the main financiers, Stephen Talbot – who was the minister for finance for Liberia – died in this plane accident very soon after the concert and that sort of threw the whole thing into disarray. There was no money to pay to get the materials out of the laboratory or anything like that.”
It took Gast over a decade finally gain control of the material and another decade to make When We Were Kings. But by the time the film was finally complete, he was creatively exhausted. For Levy-Hinte though, it was an opportunity.
“Here was this amazing wealth of material that was just kind of stranded,” he says. “I’d kind of toyed with the idea of doing the film for a while, but when I saw that James Brown had passed away I was incredibly saddened and my mind immediately went to the fact that I had this responsibility. I knew that the footage was there, I knew that very few people who are living know that it’s there and have access to it, and I had the ability and wherewithal to bring it to fruition in a way that really resonated.”
“That kind of footage and material belongs to all of us in a way,” he continues. “It’s an artefact of a cultural event. To not share that with people had an almost criminal element to it in my mind.”
But beyond sharing the experience of the concert, Soul Power captures the startling sense of emotion and reconnection that going back to Africa evoked in the artists. “There’s that Spinners song ‘Going Home’ and that’s really how a lot of these people, especially Bill Withers and B.B., really felt,” he says. “It really had a profound effect, as though they were touching on something that was primal and deeply important.”
“When you listen to The Spinners or Bill Withers, these were incredibly, uniquely powerful performances.”
Levine agrees. “I think some of the performances, particularly James Brown, were just out of this world.”
“I’d seen James many, many times before and since, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him as hot as he was that night.”
by Dan Rule
Soul Power plays at ACMI, Melbourne until May 24. It will screen as part of the Sydney International Film Festival in June and the Revelation Perth International Film Festival in July.