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Soul Power, directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, gives you a front row ticket to the best concert you've never heard of: Zaire '74, a three-day music extravaganza with B.B. King, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, and The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, along with a murderers' row of the best in American soul, funk, and Afrobeat.
For years, this concert lay in the shadows of its sister event, the legendary boxing match—George Foreman/Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle"—that took place at the same time. 1996's Oscar-winning doc When We Were Kings captured the story of that famous fight; Levy-Hinte edited that film (he's also produced such indie hits like Thirteen and Mysterious Skin), and over ten years later, Soul Power continues that story. Using never-before-seen footage—originally shot by the likes of Albert Maysles for Kings—of the accompanying concert, the funky documentary commemorates one of the most astounding musical events in history.
Tribeca: Obviously, the footage wasn't shot with Soul Power in mind. When you went into making the film, did you have a definitive idea about where you wanted to take it?
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte: The feeling was one of great discovery, traveling in uncharted terrain. I did know a few things—I knew that I wanted the music to be half the movie. Certain songs, like James Brown's "Soul Power," I knew I had to find a place for them. For the most part, it was trying to take the things I was attracted to and weave a tapestry to put them all together. The vérité style allows for an approach that I find very gratifying, where you’re like an investigator, and you find something and you follow it.
Tribeca: Is there a danger of getting lost in the footage, though?
JL-H: I think there is, but I never felt that danger. I had a pretty strong sensibility—I had a timeframe, I knew the general structure, and I had an approach. I didn’t have a picture of what it would look like in the end, but I knew how I wanted to get there.
Tribeca: So how did your relationship with the editor work itself out?
JL-H: Dave A. Smith is a fantastic editor. He’s done major assistant editing for years now. He had an endless capacity for really exploring and really picking out wonderful moments. You can’t be equally sensitive to everything. When it came time to cut a scene, he really was able to put it in a shape which matched my sensibility. He really appreciated this vérité world, which not everybody does.
Tribeca: Did you find yourself growing attached to the material as the way a director might, or were you able to maintain your objectivity?
JL-H: I’d say that I was able to maintain my subjectivity. I think that we were a check for each other. At the same time, I knew that I wanted this to be a 90-minute movie. I didn’t have a producer, so I imposed that upon myself. I imposed other rules, primarily because I knew things could get out of hand, and I wanted it to be the type of thing that could really connect with an audience. Typically, when I screen it, people always say, "I wish I could have had a little bit more." Which is actually perfect.
Tribeca: When I saw it at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, people were singing and dancing in the theater. Does that typically happen?
JL-H: It depends. A New York audience is great. Some audiences don’t know that you can do that to a movie. That, for me, is the ideal though. It’s like a concert.
Tribeca: While you wanted to use those music sequences to their fullest potential, I’m guessing you didn’t want to overwhelm the film with them.
JL-H: Yeah. The film is predicated on so many different types of balances. One of them was, I wanted to present the music, the festival, but also the world around it and what the experience was like, what it meant to the people who were there. Even though we all want more music, when you see it for an hour straight, you begin to lose focus—you need to be refreshed. So you see the idea of moving in and out of a three-day concert in these rhythms, getting just enough, going away, stepping back in, going away before people are tired of it, and then going back in for the final climax with James Brown.
Tribeca: What was editing that sequence like?
JL-H: The hardest part was having to take stuff out.
Tribeca: I bet.
JL-H: We couldn’t have too much. As it is, he opens and closes it, it’s like the James Brown show. But then you want to get the rest of the band, seeing the way that they interact with one another.
Tribeca: It’s interesting, using footage that was shot over 30 years ago and making a film in 2009. Was there something of a disconnect in terms of cinematic style, between what was there and what you would have wanted?
JL-H: Well I think that what was there, I embraced. I love that approach, and I felt that the main people had a true mastery of what it meant to shoot in a vérité fashion. For any given situation, it’s the way they go into it and cover it. You can’t just hold the same shot for a long period of time. They really understood how to move around, get a close-up, a two-shot, inserts. I can’t give enough respect to the people who shot it. I don’t feel as bad that I wasn’t there directing it, because the directing almost was just the camera people who went out and shot it. There was an organization: Paul Goldsmith, Albert Maysles, Kevin Keating, and Roderick Young. They were at the height of their powers.
Tribeca: It’s almost as if you went back in time and made a movie in 1974, and that’s what’s being released now.
JL-H: That was my desire. Partly, just to embrace what I had, because I think to do it otherwise, it would have inevitably had interviews, re-enactments, and elements I wasn’t interested in. I think the primary difference was, if the film was made in 1975, it probably would’ve been an hour longer, because films were much looser. And it probably would have had some more exotic elements, like strange jump cuts. Who knows what they would have done? It depends on how many drugs they would’ve been doing. But I don’t do any drugs, so you get a pretty straightforward approach.
Learn more about the making of Soul Power:
Soul Power is released in New York and Los Angeles this Friday. Click here for ticket information.
Catch it in New York at the Sunshine Cinema.
Want to advertise the power of your own soul? Buy a recreated-vintage tee, from Brooklyn-based Miss Wit Designs (aka the niece of Zaire '74 producer Stewart Levine). Shirts are also available at the Sunshine Theater.