I know what you're thinking, you foreign-DVD-mavens and followers of the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema label out there, not that the two groups are in any way mutually exclusive. You're thinking, "Well, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, you're all well and good with the Godard and the Pialat and the Mizoguchi and the Ozu and the Murnau and the Lang, but when are you gonna get down to it and issue a DVD of a fantastic concert film?!?!?!?!?"
Well, the time is now. And in keeping with the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema ethos, what they've pulled out of their bag is not just a fantastic concert film but an unusual concert film, unusual not just for the uniqueness of the concert it chronicles, but because the film of said concert comes into being over three decades after the fact of the concert.
The concert was the three-day Zaire '74 Music Festival, a sister event to the massive Muhummad Ali-George Foreman rematch, the "Rumble In The Jungle" chronicled in the much-lauded and awarded 1996 doc When We Were Kings. As with Kings, this picture was assembled from footage shot by particular team of cinematographers (including Albert Maysles) who had been hired for a documentary that fell apart after the the various companies behind these sporting and entertainment extravaganzas (contrived, largely, by Don King) went bankrupt. For this film, original Kings director Leon Gast and producer David Sonenberg, who salvaged the footage years after the fact, allowed Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who supplied Avid services for Kings, to take over the assembly.
Hinte set himself up some interesting, almost OULIPO-esque constraints in creating the film. First off, no voice-over, explanatory or otherwise. Second, he wasn't going to seek out any of the participants for contemporary retrospective interviews, as Gast did for Kings. In fact, Hinte didn't even want to use any explanatory titles, but he broke down, just a little, on that last one. Instead, he wanted to tell the story of the concert and present the performances via the purest cinema possible.
What he ends up with is a film that's in its own way as vibrant and revelatory as two other great concert films of the 70s, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock and Maysles and Zwering's Gimme Shelter. And the funny thing is that, because of the methods Levy-Hinte used, the film feels like it could have come out in 1974! It plays like the great lost concert film of that era. Which of course has a lot to do with the way Hinte actually cuts the footage, as much as it has to do with the verite look of the 16mm stock it was shot with.
The story the picture tells is a wild one, full of wild characters. There's concert promotor Stuart Levine, white and British as white and British can be, his stage-building tech crew and de facto advance men rock-and-rolling strangers in a strange land. There's King, whose ability as a boxing promotor at the time was only eclipsed by his chops as a self-promotor. There's Ali, at times boisterous, at other times contemplative. There's an uproarious scene in the first third when he's breakfasting with King, musician Bill Withers, and an unidentified man (coulda used a little more titling, I guess), and Ali says he's never "felt so free in his life" as he has during his time in Zaire, and the unidentified associate at the table calls bullshit on him, in a funny, affectionate way: "You free, Champ! Sammy Davis, Jr. is free..."
The constraints described above don't allow the picture to get too deep into the dicey political situation in Zaire, now known as the Congo, at the time of the festival. But that's not the point, and there's Where We Were Kings for that. What Levy-Hinte is interested in is two things: the incredible music—the picture is capped off by a terrific James Brown performance, but he's hardly the one doin' it to death; Bill Withers, for instance, keeps the enormous crowd spellbound with just his evocative voice and an acoustic guitar—and the constant give and take of African and African-American cultural exchange and goodwill. A journalist asks Brown how it feels to be the most "respected American in Africa" visiting Africa (it was not Brown's first foray to the continent), and telling him that "every band in Zaire is playing a James Brown beat." Brown was never one to be stuck for an answer to such a question, and said answer usually involved the fact that he was after all the baddest, or some such, but in this event he's given pause. He's not quite humbled, but moved. "The beat will return to its roots," anticipates Lloyd Price, the renowned R&B singer and one of the concert's organizers, early in the film. One wishes he himself had been in the show—for him to have performed "Stagger Lee" in such a context, well, it boggles the mind.
Sony is putting out domestic issues of this picture in both standard definition DVD and Blu-ray early next year, but the Eureka!/MOC issues are out now, and they're region free. There is much to be commended in both supporting the company's efforts AND getting this movie in time for Christmas, that's all I'm sayin'.