"When you bad," boasts the young and beautiful, piss-and-vinegar-filled Muhammad Ali early in the documentary Soul Power, "you can do what you wanna do." The film, which takes too long to get to the meat of its matter but captivates once it does, documents the three-day music festival that accompanied the iconic 1974 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match in Zaire. Ali's bravado-soaked words, breezily tossed off after he disrupts a Don King news conference, also serve as an artist's manifesto for the film's musical acts: Celia Cruz, the Spinners, Fania All-Stars, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, and more.
The concerts were meant to be a cultural exchange between African and African-American musicians, but they were briefly imperiled after a Foreman eye injury forced a postponement of the fight. When finally mounted, the shows became the stuff of pop-culture folklore. More than 125 hours of footage were shot of the festival by Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Roderick Young, and Albert Maysles. Leon Gast's Oscar-winning 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings, used a portion of the footage, and the rest was then relegated to the vaults. Soul Power is an addendum to Kings using that forgotten footage.
The film begins with lovely if clichéd day-in-the-life shots of ordinary Africans, including a young mother strapping her two babies to her body before starting a long trek down a dirt road. It jumps to a news conference and travel footage of the artists and then to a midair jam session in which a member of Cruz's band improvises a Pepsi can as an instrument while Cruz keeps time by pounding the heel of her shoe against the overhead compartment. The late, great Cruz fiercely reps Cuba in this movie-stealing number.
But this first act is largely padding, bogged down in the tedious chronicling of assorted logistics nightmares that accompany such an undertaking. It eats up time that could have been allotted for the actual performances. As it is, only headliner James Brown is allowed to strut his stuff on more than one song.
The irony is that Brown's is one of the least impressive of the performances. He's wonderful but familiar. Much badder is Cruz and her sprawling, sexily raucous band. Bill Withers makes an especially brave choice of song with his sparse and aching acoustic performance of "She's Gone," given that most acts focused on mid- to uptempo numbers to rouse the crowd. Miriam Makeba's "Click Song" is introduced with a vigorous assertion of cultural pride: "It's not a noise but my native tongue."
Infusing these performances with a political heft that resonates across eras is a news conference at which Ali dismantles a white reporter's utopian race rhetoric. With nationalistic counterattack, Ali calls out entertainers and athletes who don't dedicate themselves to the uplift of their people — the yin to the yang of James Brown's observation that "Dollars is what this thing is about. You cannot get liberated, broke."