Everyone knows about the Rumble in the Jungle, the historic boxing match that pitted George Foreman (then heavyweight champion of the world) against the former world champion, revenge-seeking Muhammad Ali. The match took place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under supervision by smarmy boxing promoter Don King.
You might know of it because you're a sports fan, or you have ESPN Classic. Or you may know about it because you've seen Leon Gast's excellent, Academy Award-winning documentary 'When We Were Kings' (as yet unavailable in high definition). The match was also the climax of Michael Mann's so-so 'Ali' biopic. But the less said about that the better.
But while you may know all about the Rumble in the Jungle fight, did you know there was a parallel musical event, hosted by many of the same forces that put the fight together, spread over three nights, that led up to the main event? Neither did I. Thank God 'Soul Power' shed some light on this music festival.
The event was called Zaire '74 (the fight and festival both took place in October 1974), with performances from James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, Bill Withers and a whole host of African musicians and performers. This is what 'Soul Power' is all about.
Comprised of archival footage, much of it never seen before (and thought to have been lost forever), as well as some borrowed elements from 'When We Were Kings' ('Kings' director Leon Gast is one of the producers on 'Soul Power'), the movie is a pure document – of both the lead up to and actual performances in the Zaire 74 concert.
'Soul Power' is undeniably enthralling. Early on we get to observe the frantic organization of the event from the American side of things, as we see the talent and administrators trying to put the pieces together. We watch Don King announce the fight, and see many appearances from the bravado Muhammad Ali. We see a more sheepish side of James Brown before the concert, then our brains are left to melt when they show actual footage of him from the show, sweating profusely, wearing some kind of one-piece jumpsuit, and absolutely dazzling the crowd. (Personally, Brown may have been a terror, but man could he light up a stage.)
The narrative of 'Soul Power' is clean: it's a bunch of people, putting on a concert. But what director Jeff Levy-Hinte understands, and what is so essential to our enjoyment of the film, is that he tries to take in as much character and atmosphere (from the people working on the concert and those native Africans in Zaire) as he can in the allotted 93 minutes. It really adds a lot to the experience of watching 'Soul Power,' and gives us a better understanding of what it was like to have been there.
Besides what Levy-Hinte gives us, with a brief text crawl and the atmospheric flourishes, the movie is devoid of context. If someone hadn't seen 'When We Were Kings' I can imagine that same viewer being somewhat lost as to why this was such a big deal. That said, if you love soul music or African music (or both), you're sure to be dazzled. There's a lot of power in this 'Soul.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB disc is BD-Live ready and Region Free. The disc automatically plays, runs through some boring previews, but halts on the main menu.
THE MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is nice but is sort of baffling. I mean, this is found footage from 1974. It's not exactly going to sparkle like a newly cleaned bathroom. There are upsides, which I'll get to in a minute, but I'm not quite sure this film, from a video-standpoint, is something that was begging to be put on Blu-ray. (Or maybe I'm still sore about Sony's cancellation of 'Bright Star.')
Okay, first thing's first, and let's just get this out of the way: yes, the image is extremely grainy. This was footage that was well worn, and no matter how much they clean it up, it's still going to look like it was shot in 1974 and hasn't exactly been lovingly preserved. The fact that the existence of this footage remained a mystery for so long should tell you something. Anyway, that said, the grain is never a problem, at all, and adds a lot to the period "you are there" feeling of the film.
Colors for the most part are fairly good, skin tones look nice, blacks are deep and dark, and when some outrageous only-in-the-'70's color pops up, you best believe it's rendered vividly. Similarly, there are moments of sharp clarity, and the level of detail is definitely heightened over a DVD, I'm sure. Beyond the generally poor level of the source material, there aren't any buggy technical issues, either.
Yes, it's a very good film, and I appreciate Sony putting smaller titles like this out. But this transfer is far from reference quality. How could it be with the source material being so iffy?
Far better than the video presentation is the disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Basically, if you're not dancing around your living room/bedroom/rumpus room (do people still have rumpus rooms?), then you probably don't have it turned up loud enough.
What everyone wants to know is – how do the music performances sound? Well, like a million bucks. They really are beautifully done, taking full advantage of your surround sound set up. They have the oomph you'd expect, but there's also a fascinating amount of background concert noise – not only the rumbling of the crowd, but the way that the background dancers and musicians move around the stage.
Additionally, the non-concert stuff, both the putting together of the show and the sort of atmospheric stuff about Zaire, are rendered excellently as well. Dialogue is crisp and clear and always intelligible and well prioritized, while the atmospheric stuff (the people on the street – it's good to see that not even Zaire was safe from the bell bottom craze, the cars zooming by) is full-bodied and alive.
While the concert sequences take full advantage of the surround sound channels, there's still a fair amount of vibrancy and ambience in the other stuff too. Over all, this is a very well done mix, and easily eclipse's the Blu-ray's so-so visual content.
Bafflingly, you can listen to 'Soul Power' in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and subtitles are provided in English, English SDH, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
There are a few special features on this disc, anchored by a hearty commentary track.
'Soul Power' is a nifty little concert movie, a booty-shaking history lesson about the concurrent show that went along with the famous Rumble in the Jungle boxing match. If you're a fan of James Brown and vintage soul and funk, then you'll absolutely eat this up with a spoon. With adequate video, superb audio, and a few worthwhile special features, it's a neat little time capsule, and considering how long the footage was thought lost, kind of miraculous. But then again, I guess we should have never discounted the power of soul. Recommended.