Monday, August 24, 2009

"Soul Power" Gets its Groove On; "Julie & Julia" Make a Winning Recipe


directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
starring many legendary musicians + Muhammad Ali, Don King, and lots of nameless organizers and spectators

“Soul Power” is one of those rare films that feels, purely and simply, like a celebration. Perhaps because that’s precisely what it’s about: a celebration of the greatest that African and African-American music had to offer in 1974, in the form of an epic concert in Kinshasa featuring a lineup that included James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, the Spinners, Celia Cruz, and Miriam Makebe, to name just the more famous performers. Zaire 74, as it was called, was originally double-billed with an epic fight better known as the Rumble in the Jungle. As it turns out, injuries forced the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali faceoff to be postponed for several weeks, but the other show went on as scheduled.

Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who worked on “When We Were Kings,” the 1996 documentary of the far more famous fight, put together “Soul Power” entirely out of historical footage of Zaire 74 and the preparations leading up to it. There’s no present-day commentary, no voice-over, and no overtly political or sociological angle in general. Perhaps as a consequence, the prevailing mood is one of unfiltered joy—joy in music, performance, and the communion that comes out of both. It’s something like what I expected “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” to be and wasn’t quite. The film takes a little while to get going (though the lead-up has its share of amusing moments, including one very musical plane ride to Kinshasa), but once the performers start to take the stage, it never ceases to be anything less than spellbinding. Their connection with their music, and with the meaning of being in that place at that time, is so vibrant, so palpable, we can feel it over thirty years later, as intensely and immediately as we feel the beaded sweat on their faces, shining through the sweltering heat of a September night in Kinshasa. If nothing else, “Soul Power” is worth going to for the concert footage alone. To this hour, I’m still haunted by Bill Withers’ rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier”—soul power, indeed—and still kicking myself for having to go to the bathroom during Celia Cruz’s number.

But the offstage dynamics are equally riveting, whether it’s the sight of African and African-American women learning new dance moves from each other backstage, or the shots of performers improvising with locals in the street, and the fascinatingly varied reactions of the latter to the camera’s presence. And there’s a generous sprinkling throughout of Muhammad Ali waiting for his own stage while shooting the shit with reporters and being his legendarily charming, provocative, hambone self. It’s a delight to see him juxtaposed with that other charismatic showboat, James Brown, and between the two of them they provide most of the social commentary that the film otherwise leaves to the margins or deeply buried in subtext. (Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who approved the fight and the concert, gets only a few very glancing, mostly oblique swipes.) Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing that the focus remains on the music and the sense of promise that Zaire 74 represented. That history may or may not ultimately have fulfilled that promise takes nothing away from the glorious sense of anticipation and wonder, crystallized in that moment, on that stage, that “Soul Power” captures so effectively.


Also saw:


directed by Nora Ephron
starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Eric Messina, Jane Lynch
based on the book by Julie Powell

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, but really don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t already been said. Is Meryl Streep fabulous as Julia Child, the woman who introduced American households to the delights of French cuisine? Of course. Is Amy Adams miscast as Julie Powell, the formerly frustrated writer who cooked and blogged her way through the entirety of Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Perhaps. Does she win us over anyway? Yes. Does Stanley Tucci do his usual wonderfully understated supporting work as Mr. Julia Child (aka Paul Child)? Yes. (Eric Messina, too, delivers a strong performance as Eric Powell, Julie’s supportive but not-quite-saintly husband.) Do the dishes look scrumptious? Oh yes. And the shots of the Parisian streets, markets, bistros, and kitchens that shaped Julia’s mission? Those too. The parallel shots of Queens and Manhattan—ehh, not so much.

“Julie & Julia” is warm, entertaining, and memorable chiefly for Meryl’s star turn as the First Lady of American celebrity chefs. Julie Powell doesn’t burn quite as bright as a character, partly because there’s an inherent conflict between what the film tries to convey as her bitchy edge, a self-absorption bordering on solipsism, and Adams’ inherent adorableness, a conflict the actress doesn’t succeed in resolving. Still, it’s that incorrigible likeability that helps make Julie sympathetic, and her eventual triumph feel like a sincere tribute to la Julia, and not the self-serving act of exploitation some critics (and, it’s suggested, even Julia herself) have felt it to be. I don’t think anyone involved in the making of this film, including Julie Powell herself, meant to imply any equivalency between the accomplishments of the two women. It’s simply a story of inspiration, delivered as lightly as a good soufflé, and it goes down just as easily. Bon appétit!



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