The concert concept was no more insane than The Rumble In The Jungle, Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title fight against George Foreman in 1974, which was captured on screen in the Oscar-winning doc When We Were Kings. After 35 years lying dormant in a celluloid graveyard, gathering dust and distant memories, reels and reels of film have been rescued and restored by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte in honour, according to him, of the Godfather of Soul, the diminutive bundle of energy in his flared jumpsuit and weird hair, who takes top billing.

A pop concert in Kinshasa, capital of Zaire, a country most Americans would never have heard of, sounds like economic suicide (as it turned out to be), considering that the promoters had to build the stage from scratch as well as import the talent, which included, in addition to James Brown, such luminaries as BB King, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba. The involvement of boxing promoter Don King helped publicise the event as a celebration of African-American music.

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The politics of race, bleeding from the riots in Watts and the murder of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, has not yet affected Phil Spector’s wall of sound or the sweet sensations of Motown and Smokey Robinson. BB King is a blues man, while James Brown takes the beat deeper and darker than the close connections and passionate longing of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. This is the heart of blackness, the rhythm of fever, the sounds of slavery.

The film feels unrequited. As a concert movie there is not enough music. As a documentary there are questions left hanging. You want to see more of Zaire, recognise the true extent of this achievement and uncover the political awareness of the performers. Mobutu, the corrupt dictator who sanctioned the Ali/Foreman fight as well as the concert, remains in the shadows. Security is loose, to say the least, but those were safer times, despite Ali’s insistence that the Zairans are more free than his fellow Americans – “We white and black, we’re not brothers.”

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2009
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A celebration of African-American music that accompanied the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire, 1974
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Director: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

Starring: James Brown, Celia Cruz, B.B. King, Don King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Muhammad Ali

Year: 2008

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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