For a documentary about a music festival, "Soul Power" doesn't include nearly enough music.
That's a shame, because what's here is wonderful - exuberant, high-wattage performances from the likes of B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers and, especially, James Brown, performing in Zaire as a backdrop to the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight fight. But by including only one song from each performer - except for Brown, who gets two - director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte seriously shortchanges them and his audience.
As originally planned, the music festival and heavyweight title fight were supposed to happen the same weekend. The fight was postponed after Foreman was injured, but promoters opted to go on with the music, citing the difficulty of rescheduling an event with so many performers. Still, the chaos wasn't over: Just days before the event was to start, Zaire's leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, inexplicably moved the opening day from Friday to Saturday.
All of this is touched on in the movie's nonconcert footage, which mostly consists of people milling about, wondering if things are going to somehow work out, and musicians preparing to go onstage. Interesting? Sure, but more than 30 minutes into the film, you've gotten the point.
Ali occasionally pops up, generally to talk about how proud he is of what is happening here; there's a funny, almost quaint soliloquy in which he marvels about the black pilots of the airplane that brought him to Zaire. Throughout the film, the sense of too-long-dormant black pride is both palpable and inspiring.
But instead of letting the performers do what they do best, Levy-Hinte, sifting through footage left over from Leon Gast's Oscar-winning 1996 movie, "When We Were Kings," spends roughly half the film chronicling the concert's back story. And while that back story may be of some interest, it pales before the chance to see and hear the Spinners do more songs like "One of a Kind Love Affair." Every time "Soul Power" turns away from the music, it's another reminder that this is just the leftovers from Gast's documentary.
What that film didn't have was transcendent musical moments, like Withers pouring his soul into an intimate version of "Hope She'll be Happier." And who wants to watch standard shots of a stage being erected or of a self-aggrandizing news conference featuring Don King, when you've got James Brown ready to seize the stage?
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language)
Running time: 1:33
Performances by: James Brown, the Spinners, B.B. King, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte