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Exclusive: Q&A with Soul Power Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

On October 30th, 1974, Muhammad Ali touched gloves with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. After eight epic rounds, Ali put the mighty Foreman, and the demons of his late career achievements, down to the mat. The Oscar-winning doc When We Were Kings told the story of The Rumble in the Jungle and captured Ali’s magical verbal sparring, along with the feeling generated by American pop and confidence merging with tribal rhythms and homecoming warmth. But that was only half the story.

To celebrate the monumental event, concert promoters got together and created Zaire ’74, which took mega-American-talents like James Brown and B.B. King and matched them with other members of the African Diaspora’s musical royalty. Overshadowed by Ali and Foreman’s pugilist dance, the concert and the backstory of what it took to make it happen has sat in cold storage for over 30 years now. But it’s about to defrost.

Soul Power, opening in New York and LA this Friday, should join the concert film brotherhood of Gimme Shelter, Wattstax, and Woodstock; Flavorpill sat down with the film’s director, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who also edited Kings, to discuss his return to the fall of ’74 and what was arguably the most historical musical moment to fail to get the big screen treatment.

Flavorpill: When We Were Kings felt like such a perfect cinematic moment. Why return to the footage now?

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte: The now is significant. It’s the thirteen-year interregnum, and part of it is being intimidated by Kings. The real reason to return to it, is to be able to explore the music festival element, which was present in Kings, but was subordinate. I just felt that the music festival was incredibly important and dynamic, and it needed to be put out there into the world. It needed to have its place. But going into it I was very anxious about the comparisons.

FP: I’ve read that the version of the film being released now was not your original cut, and that you had another version that didn’t test well because it was lacking a narrative arc. But seeing the film, and experiencing the power of the raw footage, I can kind of understand why you would just want the images and music to wash over the audience without as much context as Kings. I was wondering what your thoughts are on these two different versions.

JLH: Well, it’s always finding the balance, and those early test screenings weren’t finished films. They were all works in progress, which I do for all the films that I produce… It’s the only way to step outside the insular world that you’ve created and understand how other people are going to perceive it, and ultimately you’re making the film for other people. I think what’s most fascinating about it for me is hearing other people question it, and articulate their interpretation of it, which invariably makes it a film that I’m happier with.

So in a way there is no compromise whatsoever. You want to find the film that speaks most honestly to what you are trying to do, and that’s what I approached it as. As opposed to trying to find the film that I thought would be the most popular, or most successful, or most sellable. I didn’t think I had any chance of selling it anyway [laughs].

FP: Really? But When We Were Kings was an Oscar-winning film, and this one has a cast of characters who are larger than life.

JLH: I loved it, and agree with those two elements; I’m just very cynical as to the state of independent film distribution. Fortunately I have a wonderful distributor with Sony Pictures Classics, but you know, they’ll pick up one or two documentaries a year. The marketplace has really been decimated the last few years.

FP: Yeah, documentary had a spike for a little while and then just died.

JLH: I think what you are seeing, the general pattern, is that the distributors who step into the space, for better or for worse, they don’t really have the capacity to mount more significant theatrical elements. So you are really relegated to niche theatrical distribution, if any, and then DVD and cable. And that’s all well and good, but that also comes with them not being able to pay you.

FP: With this project you had a mountain of footage. What strategy did you use to tackle it all?

JLH: The first thing you do is you watch it all. There were seven hundred or so camera rolls, and as you watch them you make notes: which scenes were interesting, which scenes are compelling, which scenes are relevant. And from that we derived 50 or 60 scenes that we edited down. And from that we put it into an assembly in rough shape.

Then the real work happens. You refine, and move around and really try to understand what works and how the pieces relate to one another. And of course the most painful moment when you have a piece, and it speaks to you, but there’s no place for it in the movie. That’s where the real discipline comes in.

FP: Have you screened the film for any of the original participants, or anyone who was there?

JLH: Yeah. Stewart Levine, who was the concert promoter. Some of the camera people have seen it, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Roderick Young. Some of the performers have seen it. I believe Bill Withers has seen it, but I haven’t spoken to him, Fred Wesley, and Big Black…

FP: And their reactions?

JLH: Everyone seems to be universally enamored with it. And very complimentary, but you never know, they could just be being nice. I think for the most part people are digging it. I think the film has the aesthetic that they [the performers] were trying to create. It’s kind of a throwback, or an homage. I prefer to think of it as an homage. Other people find it annoyingly retro.

FP: Do you mean an homage to the time?

JLH: To the time, to the event, to that style of filmmaking. It’s a little bit more looser, more willing to take leaps, and not trying to be rigidly narrative. For me, the primary value was not imparting information about the event. If you want that you can read an article or a book. It’s really about wanting to provide the kind of experience, and to give you a sense of what it was like for the performers, and what it was like for the people who were there to observe it. And for me, that’s what I really tried to accomplish.

FP: As for the music, one thing the film brings up is that this was the first time that a lot of these musicians, from different cultures, were seeing each other perform live. I was wondering if you could comment at all, or have you spoken to anyone, about this moment in 1974 having an effect on the trajectory of certain musicians from that point on?

JLH: I haven’t spoken to somebody who has made the grand statement, although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. I’d be extremely interested to find out as well. But I think in small ways, the ways it influenced the performers who were there; that I could see in the movie and I’ve heard things afterward about its impact. I don’t know. I’d be really curious to find out, because when you watch it go down you do get the sense, certainly in the moment, that it was very powerful, very important, and significant in peoples’ lives. But you never know how that’s going to relate over time.

I think that as far as the impact of the event, in some ways because the film wasn’t finished and the albums weren’t put out, I think its impact was truncated. I mean I always think, what would Woodstock have been without the film or the recordings? It would have been a bunch of hippies saying that this was an amazing thing, but it became an iconic cultural event precisely because of the way in which it was distributed through media. And this event didn’t have the same trajectory.

FP: So originally there was supposed to be a film about this event that never saw the light of day?

JLH: It all got mired. It was incredibly ’70s. There was bankruptcy of the production company, and general confusion around how to finish it, and lack of resources and legal battles…

FP: That sounds pretty contemporary.

JLH: Yes, but now things are much more programmed. There are still tremendous problems, but the scale of this effort. I mean they spent a couple million dollars. Today I can’t even imagine the equivalent. I mean the equivalent would be one of the Scorsese music projects going into obscurity. I think we’ve all paid the price of not having the chance to live with this cultural experience, but I certainly get a great benefit, because I’m able to make the movie. If not, it would have just been another movie that I got to watch.

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