It must have been a simpler time. Everyone seemed so naturally sexy, even wearing the most atrocious synthetics. Wireless communication devices were enormous and unreliable, and yet so very patiently tolerated. The sound of black power was alive and righteous, yet so funky, so sweet.
And even the truly world-class entertainers seemed less like self-inflated, inhuman poseurs, than they do now. That's right, I am telling you that even when James Brown bounced around on an enormous outdoor stage in a form-fitting jumpsuit and sequined "GFOS" boxing belt, he seemed somehow more humble than some of the entertainers of today.
It was a time when the chance to play in Africa meant a lot to African-American performers. A time when attentive, broad-minded cinéma vérité prevailed in the creation of documentaries, and hope trumped cynicism in racial politics -- although, with Muhammad Ali on the scene, and Don King there to promote him, pronouncements would be made.
The scene was Zaire '74, the rollicking, politically magnanimous three-day festival of music conceived (albeit with a public-relations-savvy support from tyrant thug Mobutu Sese Seko) to be the opening act for Ali's impending "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman. The talent on hand included Brown, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, and Bill Withers.
That historically momentous Ali-Foreman fight got the movie it deserved in 1996, with the Oscar-lauded documentary When We Were Kings. Now one of that film's editors, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, has used its outtakes to provide an essential film about the festival, Soul Power.
As a time capsule, it's eye-opening: We see Ali giving interviews; and a spontaneous in-flight jam session, cross-cut with the logistical agonies of festival preparation; and Manu Dibango calling and responding with Kinshasa street kids; and, out of the blue, George Plimpton, drinking and grinning. And of course there are serious political messages, as when Makeba says, "It's not a noise, but my native tongue," while introducing "The Click Song."
But the best destiny of Soul Power is as a simple, commanding concert film. Photographed by Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, and Roderick Young, it's sort of its own little master class on looking and listening. And maybe that's why the movie's most beautiful moment seems to defy place and time entirely. If the devastating, universally understandable simplicity of Withers' "Hope She'll Be Happier" makes one thing clear, it's that some things never go out of style.
Soul Power now playing at the Century San Francisco Centre and Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.