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Originally published July 30, 2009 at 2:30 PM | Page modified July 31, 2009 at 11:42 AM

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Movie review

'Soul Power': 1974 Zaire music-festival footage unearthed

"Soul Power," an exciting companion film to the 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings," tells the story of a music festival in Zaire combining African-American and African music artists. The film features Muhammad Ali (who was there for his "Rumble in the Jungle" bout with George Foreman), James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba and others.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

"Soul Power," a documentary with Muhammad Ali, James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Don King, Celia Cruz, the Crusaders, Stokely Carmichael. Written and directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. 92 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language. Varsity; see Page 17.

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"Soul Power" is the indispensable companion film to Leon Gast's thrilling 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings."

In 1974, Gast shot footage surrounding the World Heavyweight Championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event known as the "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali and reigning champ Foreman agreed to fight in the Don King-promoted match in Africa, but when both boxers got there, they found complications set the duel back by six weeks.

During that time, Ali was out among the people of Kinshasa and elsewhere, getting to know them and generating vicarious excitement back in the U.S. over his feeling of racial and spiritual connection with Africans. Ali's experience was enhanced by a three-day music festival, also promoted by King, which brought African-American artists including James Brown, the Spinners and B.B. King to Zaire, appearing on the same bill with African musicians.

Gast also filmed that concert and surrounding hoopla. But the raw material sat in a vault for decades until producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte ("Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired"), an editor on "Kings," took on the job of turning it into the brisk, exciting and often moving "Soul Power."

Part concert film and part portrait of African-American artists discovering what King describes at one point as a long-elusive link to historical roots, "Soul Power" traces the festival's rapid evolution from announcement to complicated reality. Along the way, Levy-Hinte has fun contrasting joy among American musicians with on-the-ground chaos surrounding preparations for the outdoor show.

The concert kicks in with the Spinners' "One of a Kind (Love Affair)," and includes King's classic "The Thrill is Gone" and the chiseled funk of headliner Brown's "Payback" and "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." Alternating with the Americans are African performers, including Miriam Makeba, whose ex-husband, black nationalist Stokely Carmichael, is admonished by Ali at one point: "Don't burn up nothin' over here."

As he was in "Kings," Ali is a ubiquitous presence in "Soul Power." He expands, almost possessed, upon his own African experience to speak somberly about the fate of ancestors brought in chains to America and the disenfranchisement of their descendants. But one can also see Ali having the time of his life in Zaire, a mood shared by the performers who join him.

Tom Keogh:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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