Friday, February 5, 2010

Soul Power

How times have changed! While watching this riveting movie one is just overwhelmed by how very different the times were in 1974 when the greatest fighter of all time, Muhammad Ali, went to Zaire to reclaim his heavyweight crown from George Foreman. At the same time a small group of impresarios and investors decided it would be a good idea hold a three-day concert to coincide with the fight. They would bring some of the biggest names in American soul music and mix them together with the cream of African and Latin musicians and bring the ghetto to the jungle as it were. Great idea, right? Well it does turn out to be a very musically rewarding experience, but the best laid plans as they say. The first 45 minutes of the film chronicle the political and financial jockeying to make the concert happen. It becomes clear that the ego of Don King drives things forward, while the poor schnook who represents the investors becomes paler by the minute as the Ali/Foreman fight faces trouble. The concert as it turns out has a life of its own as headliner James Brown is put in front of the press, and Ali does his thing. Ali’s presence looms large throughout the movie as he antagonizes Foreman, the U.S. press corps and anyone else who will listen. He is a marvel of physical perfection and mental acuity. Compared to what he is like today, it is remarkable and sad. He truly was the greatest. If you want to see his whole side of this story check out the excellent film When We Were Kings which is entirely about the fight itself. The main event here though is the music. In a way it feels like the African-American version of Woodstock. The scenes of the artists on the plane over to Africa really convey how meaningful the whole event to them. We see James Brown and Lloyd (Mr. Personality) Price embracing and saying “We’re going home.” The struggle for civil rights was not a distant memory to these men but a recent wound.

The performances are, without exception, breathtaking. The musical portion kicks off with The Spinners who are immaculate as they groove through “One Of A Kind Love Affair.” They are soul personified in their lightning sequined outfits and synchronized dance steps. The artists come fast and furious, and none disappoint. In fact there wasn’t one performance that didn’t make me wish to see the whole set. BB King is at the height of his powers, Bill Withers sends chills with a solo acoustic performance. The Crusaders are one of the real highlights with a very young Larry Carlton being notable as the lone white guy on stage. All the African performers are magnificent. It is a rare and inspiring treat to see a radiant Miriam Makeba defining exotic beauty, or Franco leading his OK Jazz band through a tight workout or Tabu Ley dancing and singing with unbelievable charisma.

The musical highlights just build as The Fania Allstars featuring Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe completely tear it up. The full stadium of Africans erupts in joy as Cruz proves why she is one of the most explosive performers the world has ever known. The musical and emotional peak has to be Soul Brother Number One, James Brown, who is such a commanding presence it almost seems impossible. His performance of “The Big Payback” is as good as it gets. He has put on a little weight since his 60’s heyday but his dancing is clearly where Michael Jackson got much of his inspiration and his singing is unearthly. One can’t even fathom where Brown’s style came from - it is so unique and personal. He is truly unlike any other singer - ever. Brown is given the last 15 minutes of the movie, which is appropriate because obviously his image and music made a great impression on the African audience. In fact throughout the movie, everyone - Ali, the other Musicians, the investors, everyone - seems to be in awe of James Brown. As the movie ends you just yearn to see more of the footage of James Brown and each of these amazing musicians in this once-in-a-lifetime gathering.
Paul Epstein

No comments: