By far the weirdest thing about This Is It (Sony), Michael Jackson’s posthumous kinda/sorta concert film, is that it was never supposed to be a film at all. The 90-something minutes of footage (with more included in the DVD/Blu-ray extras) was commissioned for the King of Pop’s personal archive. He had a camera crew shoot the extensive preparations for the series of London concerts preempted by his death on June 25, 2009, so he could watch the auditions, video shoots, and run-throughs himself again later. It’s a factoid that’s hard to push out of your mind as you consider the cost and effort, or how one after another of his cadre of young back-up dancers starts to weep while talking about how thrilled they are to be dancing with Jackson, and what an inspiration he is.
There’s more weirdness here, but not as much as you might think. Since the footage consists mostly of Jackson singing and dancing onstage, albeit at the half-staff energy level of rehearsal, it provides a welcome reminder of the phenomenal talent buried under the tabloid freak show of recent years. At age 50, he still moved with an uncanny quicksilver grace; even the robot jerks and played-out crotch grabs of his old choreography can’t obscure it. “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and the rest of the multi-platinum hit parade turn up, but This Is It also shows off later, lesser-known tunes such as “Jam” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” all of them played with both delicacy and plenty of bottom-end funk by the crack band. And that indelible voice is still there, though a medley of Jackson 5 hits finds its manly heft struggling to fit into those same old exuberant melodies, a contrast to the way his pale hands flap, bizarrely enormous, at the end of his slender arms.
As a celebration of Jackson as an artist worthy of respect, then, the film’s a surprising success. Director Kenny Ortega’s cameras capture Jackson meticulously adjusting the arrangements down to the last bar, tweaking the show to the smallest cue. But the cameras also reveal Jackson as a man who existed in cocoon of solicitous collaborators/enablers who praised and coddled him at every turn. And that helps make This Is It more than a little sad, even for a posthumous concert film.
Jackson’s send-off is sharing shelf-space with another new unusual concert doc. If you’ve seen Leon Gast’s stellar 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, you know the story of the Rumble in the Jungle, for which boxing impresario Don King set up a back-to-the-Motherland heavyweight title bout between reigning champ George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. (If you haven’t seen it, you should.) Gast’s film touched on an intriguing side show: a three-day concert planned to coincide with the fight, featuring the cream of black American musical performers, including B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and James Brown. More than a dozen years after the release of Kings and 35 years after the Rumble itself, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s footage of the concert finally gets its shot in Soul Power (Sony).
Any movie that opens with James Brown onstage has a hard time disappointing, though Soul Power does its best at the outset. For the first half hour, Levy-Hinte slogs through the logistical challenges and set-up of said concerts. The monotony of stagehands rigging lights and backstage participants providing exposition through stagey conversations is broken now and then by short candid segments featuring Ali (never one to let down a camera lens) and the performers, but it’s an opening act you’re good and ready to have over.
Once the show starts in earnest, the musical knockouts start to land. Nothing prepares you for Withers’ solo-acoustic bedsit-soul “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” a powerful personal revelation delivered in a sweltering stadium in front of 80,000 people. Two of Africa’s most revered singers, Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, take the stage, and Johnny Pacheco leads Celia Cruz and the Latin supergroup Fania All-Stars through their fiery paces. Finally, the Godfather of Soul (the bellyband of his jumpsuit spelling out “GFOS” in glittering studs) struts out for “The Big Payback” and a foreshortened medley of hits as the end credits roll.
Time constraints limit all the featured performers but Brown to a single song each, so Soul Power never gains much momentum as a concert film. But Levy-Hinte’s cameras happened to capture a glimpse of one of Black America’s early post-civil rights peaks. Ali’s blatant joy at being in Africa, where he was just a man, not a black man, appears to have spread through the concert contingent; scenes of Brown’s back-up dancers teaching the Bump to their African counterparts or Spinners lead singer Philippé Wynne donning boxing gear to mock spar with Ali give form to the feeling of liberation that the moment, and the event, seemed to promise. While the film glides past the fact that Don King made a deal with repressive, corrupt Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to make the event happen, at one point the camera lingers on a Kinshasan propaganda placard reading “Black power is sought everywhere, but it is already realized here in Zaire.” Seen within the context of Soul Power and the events it documents, it rings like truth.