Soul Plane: Brown and Price en route to Zaire.

Despite a tantalizingly choosy use of footage from the event it chronicles, Soul Power is an exceptional feature film. A gripping expansion of the performance reel from 1996’s When We Were Kings, Soul Power documents the landmark Zaire ’74 concert that was originally conceived as a three-day overture to the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (Foreman’s injury postponed the fight for six weeks, but the concert went on as scheduled). There’s plenty of Black Power talk, and the behind-the-music political sermonizing wears thin, not least because Soul Power is not a political film any more than Zaire ’74 was a political concert—it couldn’t be, not with President Mobutu’s visage hanging everywhere from posters and Ali lolling on street corners, swatting flies and marveling at how peaceful Zaire can be (“New York is the real jungle,” he scoffs at one point). And anyway, the artists didn’t get on that plane to make a statement—they were paid, as James Brown grinningly notes when he tells Don King: “You cannot get liberated broke.” They earned every penny, of course, from the Festival Express-style jamming on the 15-hour plane ride to Miriam Makeba’s defiant “Qongqothwane” to Bill Withers’ high and lonesome solo performance of “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” These takes benefit from remarkably attentive sound treatment (director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte notes that concert producer Stewart Levine “essentially brought a recording studio over from L.A.”), none more so than Brown leading the JB’s through “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” The greatest pleasures here are the small stuff: Ali horsing around with the Spinners in the practice ring and telling Brown “I got ants in my pants—I gotta dance!”; Brown telling the audience “Do not bury me while I am yet alive” after being asked to play his “old tunes.” Certain backstage scenes are nauseatingly self-congratulatory. Levine and Co. continually reassure one another that they’re staging the greatest music event the world’s ever seen: “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to them,” Levine says of the Zairian audience with an unsettling post-colonial swagger. The narrative really comes to life in the pulse of the music, fulfillment of Lloyd Price’s prophecy that “one day the beat would return to the roots.”