Thursday, 4 September 2008
TIFF 2008 - Soul Power
"When you're walking down the street then you can say 'Damn right I'm somebody!'"
With that, James Brown closes the film "Soul Power" - a documentary containing 34 year old footage of the Zaire 74 music festival. Since James and his Mighty JB's blasted open the film with the waka-chaka waka-chaka chugging of the title tune, it's appropriate to circle back to him. And there's plenty of James in between those bookends as the film is part concert doc, part behind the scenes and part historical record of "Black America" in the mid-70s.
The Zaire 74 music festival was initially conceived to go hand in hand with the George Foreman vs. Muhammed Ali boxing match ("The Rumble In The Jungle"), but early on we hear that the concert must go it alone since Foreman has cut his eye and the fight has been postponed. However, Ali has no intention of letting the cameras roll without him - he's huge in Africa and he makes his presence felt whenever he can. This is still prime Ali rattling off phrase after phrase of occasionally non-sensical patter, but always emotionally up front. His list of reasons why New York is actually a jungle or why white people cannot be brothers to black people can easily be dismissed if you are arguing about the specifics, but the MESSAGE underneath the blather is conveyed with pinpoint precision. And the Godfather Of Soul was right there preaching the same thing - though in perhaps less bombastic and more straight talk language. When talking about the fact that money is at the root of the concert they are holding, Brown simply states "Cannot get liberated broke." It must've been quite empowering for black youth (in Africa as well as the States) to hear these two world famous men try to inspire people to turn their anger into something constructive.
Less inspiring is the publicity hound qualities of Don King. His schtick got old just as fast back then as it does now, but at least some of his on screen time is amusing. And so is much of the behind the scenes footage of the show being put together. There are some similarities to the early prep scenes in Woodstock as the organizers spend time on the phone worrying about flights, hotels, equipment transport, etc. One thing the organizers of Woodstock didn't have to contend with though was a government who unilaterally decided to shift the dates of the concert. Along with the boxing match being postponed, an almost day long flight to Zaire and many difficulties communicating over radio and walkie talkies (the change in technology for immediate communication over the last 30 years really is staggering), it's a wonder they managed to get the show off the ground. Ali also contributes some great one liners during these segments: as he swats at and misses a bug he tells the reporters that the flies are faster in Africa since the American ones eat too much so they move around slower...
But all this good stuff just doesn't hold a candle to the music. The pulsing, churning, choppy rhythms of the beautiful music on display. Many of the performances have been edited down (which is understandable considering the other facets being brought into the film and the 93 minute run time), but whenever the film takes us on stage you just don't want to step off. These performers breathe their music - whether it's the constant singing and playing on the plane flight, in the small villages they visit or backstage at the concert venue the music is always with them and they infect those around them with it.
The Spinners kick things off with some great dance moves, horns and vocals. African acts like OK Jazz and Afrisa bring gorgeous melodies to the propulsive afrobeats. And Celia Cruz and her Fania All Stars lay down some spectacular Cuban salsa music that elicited some spontaneous applause at our screening. The jazz fusion band The Crusaders played with fiery intensity and really muscular chops - unlike anything I've ever heard by them on record. And then my three favourites:
1) Miriam Makeba - not only does this woman exude class (she quietly talks about not making a big deal of some lineup shuffling as long as it is in the best interests of the crowd) and confidence (she tells the crowd that French is not really her native language, but Xhosa is - and those "funny" clicks and weird sounds are part of it), but my God can she sing...Her rendition of "The Click Song" is a truly uplifting moment.
2) B.B. King - "The Thrill Is Gone" has never been a particular favourite of mine. I remember seeing B.B. perform this on The Tonight Show years ago and it was flat and pretty lifeless. Blues for middle age people who don't like the Blues. But here he absolutely kills it. The band brings it alive with a great bottom end and B.B.'s guitar Lucille sounds great, but it's his voice that sells the damn thing. He means what he's singing and you can feel it. That's the Blues.
3) James Brown - That opening salvo was terrific, but it's just an appetizer. The last section of the film is given over to the man and the fantastic Mighty JB's backing band. These guys groove it like there's no tomorrow and James works the microphone and his feet to the shuffling rhythms. You cannot stand still to this music. It just picks you up and shakes you. As his announcer says, "He'll make your liver quiver and your bladder splatter."
Overall "Soul Power" is a terrific document of Zaire 74 using just the footage from the event. No present day interviews reflecting on the past. Just the temper of the times and how it was expressed in music. One can only hope that a future DVD release contains hours and hours and hours of additional concert footage. That would be incredible.
Damn right it would.