Zaire ’74

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power releases Zaire ’74 from the vault

In its day, Zaire ’74 was in the same league as concerts like Woodstock, Monterrey Pop, and Altamont. Planned by renowned South African musician Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine to accompany the legendary Ali-Foreman boxing match, “Rumble in the Jungle,” was a three-day concert that aimed to feature performances by James Brown, BB King, and the King Pins of Soul on 30 October 1974, in the Mai 20 Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire.  Now, more than thirty years later, director and producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte has decided that Zaire ’74 should finally get its due.

Festivals and sporting events of this time period were known for stunning cinematography, and Zaire ’74 was no exception. Its credits boast luminaries like Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating and Roderick Young, as well as Albert Maysles, one half of the celebrated Maysles Brothers who pioneered the technique of cinéma vérité in films like Primary and Gimme Shelter.

Levy-Hinte discovered the extraordinary footage while working as an editor on the critically acclaimed When We Were Kings. Entirely comprised of vaulted outtakes from the Academy Award-winning film, Levy-Hinte’s film focuses solely on Zaire ’74, which was relegated to the periphery of Gast’s documentary.

“Knowledge of this footage created a burden,” Hinte says,  “I felt that if I didn’t work to bring this material to the public that I would be complicit in obscuring these events, depriving people of the opportunity to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ what had transpired.”

Originally intending to create a series of concert DVDs, Levy-Hinte set to work, only to be surprised by the musical performances, and the inspiring story of African-American musicians making their first trip to Africa during the height of the black power movement. He quickly decided to subject the 125 hours worth of footage to a proper documentary treatment, only with a few caveats: no retrospective interviews, and no archival materials.

“In the middle of the process, I realized that I didn’t have the heart to make a ‘product,’” Levy-Hinte explains. “I wanted to give the fullest expression possible to the festival and the experiences of the performers, and thus I decided to make a feature documentary.”

The resulting film, Soul Power, which derives its name from the James Brown song, documents Zaire ‘74’s pre-take off party in New York City, the logistics of organizing the event, spontaneous airplane jam sessions, and the joy that the performers experience meeting African musicians and exploring Kinshasa. The film culminates in explosive, energetic performances by giants of American R&B such as Bill Withers, Sister Sledge and the Spinners. Inspired by vérité greats like Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman, Levy-Hinte creates an immersive experience for the viewer, telling the story of Zaire ’74 with grace and ease.

Making the film, however, wasn’t always easy.

Working from outtakes of another film brings a unique set of challenges, and Levy-Hinte worried that his project could be deemed as parasitic or derivative.  He informally referred to the Herculean task of assembling the daunting footage as “climbing Mt. Zaire.”

Levy-Hinte writes in a director’s statement, “Knowing that the ‘summit’ awaited us at the end of the long and arduous journey helped us persevere; it also reminded us to be prepared, careful, and not to be led astray by hubris, which is the surest path to failure for mountaineer and filmmaker alike.”

Thankfully he succeeded. Soul Power is well on its way to becoming a canonical concert documentary.

– Jesi Khadivi