Capone has a rockin' good time talking to SOUL POWER director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte!!!
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here, flying to San Diego where I'm about to take on five days (well, four days and a very weak Sunday) of Comic-Con some of the most fun I'll ever have working my ass off. Having been to this colossal events last year, I have some idea of what to expect as I weave my way through the other 124,999 attendees. My interview dance card is almost completely full up for Thursday and Friday, and Saturday is starting to show signs of stress as well. And with the extremely fluid nature of this entire extended weekend, things will change. Oh, god, how they will change. I'm scheduled to see two fantastic films in the evenings and interview some of my filmmaking heroes and one or two other very bitchin' folks. I'll update as often as possible over the next five days, as will the multitude of other AICN editors. And since so many of you rightfully criticized me for not having photos to go along with my red hot interviews with Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Rhona Mitra, and Paris Hilton last year, this year I've brought a photographer with me. We'll see how that goes.
In the mean time, while I contemplate exactly when sleep will happen in the next few days, I've got an interview with for you with the director of one of the outright coolest films I saw at SXSW in March. His name is Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and the absolutely electric film he's made is entitled SOUL POWER, opening in limited release this weekend. Here's the easiest way to explain what SOUL POWER is: Do you remember the near-perfect Oscar-winning documentary WHEN WE WERE KINGS, about the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle." If you recall, a small piece of that film dealt with the corresponding musical festival (dubbed Zaire '74) that featuring such R&B luminaries as James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, The Spinners, Big Black, as well as many African superstars. The cameras that were in Zaire at the time and captured the fight were actually there to turn the three-day Zaire '74 into a concert film.
Skip ahead many years, and you'll find Levy-Hinte on board as an editor for WHEN WE WERE KINGS and having total access to some phenomenal concert recording (film and audio). Only a few seconds of a couple artists are shown in KINGS, Levy-Hinte was determined to piece together the concert document that never was in a verité style. The results are staggering, both in the performances captured and some extremely candid behind-the-scenes footage of the musicians discovering Africa and its people.
Levy-Hinte is also a successful producer over the years with such titles to his credit as POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, THIRTEEN, LAUREL CANYON, THE HAWK IS DYING, and the doc BOMB IT. He came through Chicago recently, and I got a chance to pick his brain about music, the fine art of assembling a film he had nothing to do with making in the first place, and his possible plans for the remaining unused footage (DVD series, anyone?). It's a great talk about editing and cutting some of your favorite moments in a movie for the betterment of the film's pacing. Enjoy…
Capone: Music docs don't get much of a fair shake in a given year anyway--beyond the occasional IMAX concert film--so I tend to focus on catching as many of those as I can at festivals. I actually see as many documentaries as I can because you never know if those will every be released; I didn't know if SOUL POWER had a release date when I saw it in March.
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte: It's so true. After years of going to festivals, and seeing people clamor to see the popular films, I'm like "Wait a second, this is coming out, and there's this whole other world of film which will sadly never been seen again. Somethings wrong here.
Capone: I love the poster by the way. I haven't seen this before. Very old school, and I love the fold lines.
JL-H: Very old school. I think the background might be a little too dark, but I love the notion of the vintage look. It looks really great on the wall. It's like someone took it out of the gutter or something. [laughs]
Capone: It was my understanding that the music festival was actually the co-headlining event of that time.
JL-H: It was. Here was the concept: Don King and Lloyd Price and this guy Hank Schwartz put together the fight in Zaire. They had this fight; they found they could bring it to Zaire, which was going to put up $14 million. While that was being organized, Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine had this idea for a music festival in Africa, of bringing American acts to Africa. And they didn't really know where it should be. They found out what Don King was doing in Africa, and they flew out to New York and said, "Wouldn't it be great to combine these two things?" Don King agreed and said, "We're partners." Then Don King wondered where they were going to get the money, which was a little bit shocking to Hugh and Stewart. Ultimately, they found this Liberian investment group. The notion was that it was going to be this…people were going to buy these package tours and go see this three-day music festival, the day after the festival there'd be this fight.
Capone: So they were counting on Americans to fly over to Africa to see all of this; this wasn't originally conceived as something for the local people?
JL-H: Absolutely, and Europeans as well. That was part of how they thought they were going to finance the concert. I don't know exactly, but I don't think the sales were doing terribly well anyway. And then when the fight and the music festival became disconnected, that was a disaster people the sales for the music festival were being driven primarily by people wanting to see the fight. so people didn't come. Financially, it was extremely difficult to sell tickets at the prices they were charging. On the other hand, you had all of Zaire there. All they had to do was open the gates and fill the stadium immediately. Some people did buy tickets, but my understanding was that the leadership finally agrees to open up the house and let people come. I don't know exactly how that worked out, but that's what was being reported at the time in the press, that the government was buying out the house.
Capone: The one very vivid memory I have of WHEN WE WERE KINGS is seeing the short slivers of this footage, and asking, "Where the hell is that movie?" I thought maybe there was another film I didn't know about. It wasn't until much later that I discovered that that material was just sitting on a shelf somewhere. You mentioned during the Q&A in Austin that you had bigger plans for this footage beyond this film.
JL-H: I don't know if I have bigger plans, but they are more expansive in connection with wanting to take the whole concert, or at least as much of it as will work, and probably making a set of DVDs out of it. They're not films in the same way, in that they don't have all the dimensions, but they really have a much fuller expression of the concert itself. To make SOUL POWER, I set a pretty high threshold--the music had to be amazing, it had to be recorded impeccably, it had to be filmed wonderfully as well. In some ways, not all the songs fall into that category. But I think that the series of DVDs or whatever that turns out to be--I actually don't know what to call it yet--the deluxe version [laughs], that's really just about showing the music, casting the net as wide as possible, giving the people a sense of what went down.
Capone: Is there some material that you're hitting yourself in the head about material that is unusable because it wasn't recorded or filmed right?
JL-H: It's interesting that you say that. I think the recording are very robust overall. Although there are different versions of some of them; I haven't gone deep into all of the multi-track versions of all the songs yet. But many of African artists for whom they had very few cameras; in some cases, they just had one camera. The piece that I'd be able to put together for this one African artist who is sort of the Aretha Franklin of Zaire, if she performed for an hour, I could maybe piece together a seven-minute piece. That is unfortunate. And then there are things like, you wish they'd filmed more of the interaction between the Zairians with the Americas. Maybe they filmed all there was, but I wanted more of that. I'm still extremely happy with the film, but you can still have your desires, right? I find that the B.B. King and the Bill Withers comments, which are toward the end of the film, about what was the meaning of going over there and what they hope to take back, are incredibly profound, really important to the film. But there are a 125 hours, that's about 10 minutes of footage that they kind of picked up randomly. They could have very well never have done that. There is something about verité filmmaking that is so interesting in that regard. You kind of have this universe that is given to you, and you have to play within its rules.
Capone: The B.B. King stuff I remember so vividly because I don't think I've ever heard him talk for that long on anything, ever. He seems so clear about why he was there and what he was gaining from the experience. I wish they'd let him talk more.
JL-H: Very thoughtful. It's interesting too, because the cadence of his voice is so musical. He is speaking in this metaphoric fashion as well, so it was a little bit hard to focus in on it, but if you hear the whole thing, it's really profound what he's saying. Essentially he's talking about the legacy of slavery and the criminal way that people were torn from their homes and what it meant for him to come back.
Capone: Were you a big fan of this kind of music before getting involved in WHEN WE WERE KINGS? Or did this emersion seal it for you?
JL-H: Exactly. I love this music, but I was kind of fan in an everyday sense. I love James Brown, but I'm not a collector, I don't really know everything that there is to know about these musicians. Anybody who is a fan will immediately put me to shame. My knowledge really is this general sense and then what I've worked on in the film.
Capone: The reason I ask is that as a music lover, to have access to something like this, it had to blow your mind a little bit.
JL-H: Oh it did blow my mind. I love music in a general sense, and I felt it was a real privilege to see how they put it together, because you're hearing the music, you're hearing the false starts, you hear how James Brown talked to his band or how B.B. King designed his playlist. This is amazing stuff. Part of it is, I don't think you need to be a devoted, die-hard fan to really appreciate the music. You need to have some sense that you're into soul music and R&B and African music, but they was I tried to create it was so a wider audience could appreciate it.
Capone: I think that it's the job of a film like this to convince an audience that this is music worth making a film about. I love this music, so this isn't a good example. But if I'm going into a film about an artist I don't know much about, I'll leave it to the filmmaker to convince me this is someone worth making a film about.
JL-H: Which is a very open-minded perspective. There's more a sense of discovery.
Capone: In terms of the non-musical sections of the film, what were some of your priorities there?
JL-H: I think the first rule of thumb was that I had to be interested in what was transpiring in a given scene or shot. I tried to accomplish a number of things. For instance, I wanted to give a sense of what it took to put the festival together, the trials and tribulations. Two, I wanted to give a sense of the sensibility behind it. Why did they create this concert? What was so significant about bringing musicians over the Zaire to create this festival? I wanted to give a sense of what it was like for those musicians and the organizers going over there. I think there was this whole other elements about the politics of the day and seeing the festival in relation to a radicalized politics, being more truthful about the history of African-American in the United States, giving voice to what the aspirations were for uplift and social transformation. So I guess all of those things came into play, but it wasn't planning out that way. It was more like those themes developed as I looked at the footage and related to it and make it something cohesive.
Capone: But you're also looking out for these one-of-a-kind moments that might not have any other meaning beyond being really funny or telling.
JL-H: Well, the Muhammad Ali breakfast with the sugar, and sitting down with Bill Withers. Even with WHEN WE WERE KINGS, I mean, there have been many films made about Muhammad Ali, and one of the great things about WHEN WE WERE KINGS is that we said, "We're going to look at who he was, but we're going to focus it down around this event, this specific time period. And in a way, you can unfold that and get a sense of who this person was without going through the entire biography. And particularly with regards to Ali, there are these multi-hour films about his life because he's so rich, so in a way, I think, by focusing you can actually elaborate the generals more effectively.
Capone: You mentioned that by deciding to go with the verité style, you consulted some of the best films made in that manner. What did you learn from them?
JL-H: I watched the movies, for sure. I deeply appreciate those films; I enjoy them. I watch them to discover how you actually put together and structure a film from this footage. And you can get into all the particulars of that. I guess it's somewhat technical and there's an editorial approach. But really, most prominently, it's a confidence. You can create something that is insightful and enjoyable and that people will connect with, without having to be overly determined regarding the informational content, and overly structured regarding narrative. I particularly like Frederick Wiseman, he goes to the extreme with these very long, very flowing. They can, in some ways, feel, I don't want to say purposeless, but they do kind of move along at their own pace. So I didn't go that far. [laughs].
Capone: Well, Wiseman just plants himself in a setting and watches what happens. At least the filmmakers whose footage you looked at were their to shoot a concert, an actual event.
JL-H: True. But there is a way that you create these little movies within it. You create a sense of anticipation and resolve. Your start to find themes. It's always that you're creating momentum. The viewer has to have a desire to get to the next place, not because they're bored, but because of this anticipation. Of course, a narrative or a plot provides that engine; you want to see how something turns out. In these types of films, you don't have that to rely on. It has more to do with how the film goes together. Part of it is keep it short [laughs].
Capone: I knew who Celia Cruz was before seeing this film, but I'd never seen her perform before this film, so to me, that was the discovery. The command she shows on stage is remarkable and shamed a lot of the veterans who were playing there.
JL-H: A lot of people have had a similar reaction to that footage. I don't know why, because I've been familiar with Fania and Celia Cruz. But you're absolutely right, her command is absolutely electrifying.
Capone: Talk about the process of choosing the performances and the specific songs, both about choosing better-known songs from famous artist and lesser known pieces them and the mix of the American artist and the African artists.
JL-H: There were a few principles I started with, and then of course you break them. But one was that I wanted to be very representative, which I basically was. There are some African acts that were left out of the film. The second thing was that I didn't want to duplicate what was in WHEN WE WERE KINGS, but of course I did with [James Brown's] "Cold Sweat," because it was too good and I couldn't leave it out. For the most part, I didn't want to overemphasize any one musician, but James Brown is quite overemphasized. I put half of it in the end credits; I began the movie with it. So I tried to spread it out. Some people wonder why we didn't have more James Brown [laughs], which is hilarious because there are five or six cues. And then when it came to the particular choices, you really try to find songs that were really well performed, had a great energy to them, well recorded. Some things were just obvious. I had to have "Soul Power," because…I didn't know I was going to call the movie SOUL POWER until about a year into it, but I was listening that song and thinking, "This is a great song." I knew I was going to start the movie with that. And then there's that great call and response, which I find very magical. Then, for instance, I saw the Bill Withers piece "Hope She'll Be Happier," and I was so blown away by it, and I said, "This has to be in the movie." Similarly with Fania, they had all these great cues, but I knew I wanted one that had Celia up front, and not all of them did, just because she's an amazing performer and one of the few women on the bill. And the song that I chose, there was just something captivating and warming about that. Within that, I also tried to say, okay I'm constructing this concert over three days and I want the days to have the right shape to them. I want to feel like there's a little bit of an arc, so I starting mixing and matching and feeling what was right. For the most part, about three-quarters of the songs I just knew right off the bat. There were a couple of options for Mariam Makeba, and for a while I didn't know. But ultimately with "The Click Song" even though it's well known for her music, I love their rendition of it. I mean it's well known in a general sense, but most people don't know it. And it's magical how she creates that, and that whole introduction, which I only found later.
Capone: There are a lot of similarities in my mind between SOUL POWER and WATTSTAX, not just the show but the social important of it. Was that a touchstone for you?
JL-H: It definitely was. Both its filmmaking style and its approach. It really gave voice to the politics of the day and social importance to what was happening, more explicitly than my film. I think the concert was more explicit. They also had the opportunity, which I didn't and I so wish I has, to go into the community and talk to the people. I thought that was a wonderful approach. As it turns out, they did it after Zaire, but Roderick Young, who was one of the DPs in Zaire, also did WATTSTAX.
Capone: What was the most painful cut?
JL-H: There were two things, both musical performances, that were particularly painful to let go. One was James Brown's "Try Me," which is the most mesmerizing performance, but it didn't really fit in the flow of it because it's almost like a ballad. And there would have been just too much James Brown. And then there was a performance by Sister Sledge, who are in the movie, you see them at different times, and I had a song of theirs, which was a cool song called "Put Your Hands Together," but the performance wasn't there. It was a little bit stiff, and it was sung a little bit out of tune, so people tell me. But for me, the quality of the voice was just off a little bit. And when I was screening this for people, 25 percent of the people say it's cool, but then 25 percent say, "Why is this in the movie?" So finally they beat me down, and I took it out. And I remember I went back to the edit room and said Take this out, but I'm going to see if there's something else we can replace it with. For whatever reason, I came to the determination that there wasn't anything else. But then more recently, I went back and looked at the footage, and I really liked their rendition of "On And On" and thought it was pretty good. What was I thinking? [laughs] The editor didn't particularly want it in, so he may have stacked the cards against them, but I take responsibility. But those were the painful cuts.
Capone: Will there be a soundtrack available? I don't see one mentioned on the poster.
JL-H: There was supposed to be. But we couldn't get the deal together, because we live in a fucked-up universe. [laughs]
Capone: You're kidding me. Were song rights part of the reason the original film didn't get made?
JL-H: I don't think so. Everything else was the reason; the song rights were okay. They own the master and the publishing you just bargain for. Yeah, we went through several companies and they made good offers, but it kind of went nowhere, and the last one fizzled out about eight weeks ago, and really it was too late to do anything else. I was really counting on them to be…I mean, the soundtrack would be great, and a big part of the overall effort, because the way music is promoted is a little more youthful and diverse than films.
Capone: Have you had a chance to meet any of the artists in the film?
JL-H: I spoke to [James Brown band member and leader of the JBs] Fred Wesley and Big Black. Bill Withers I know has seen it. Apparently we're going to do the Tavis Smiley show together next week, the radio show, which is total news to me. I just hope he doesn't trash the movie [laughs].
Capone: Jeffrey, those are all the questions I came armed with. Thank you so much, and good luck with the film. And if you sneak me a CD of the soundtrack, I'd appreciate that.
JL-H: [laughs] We'll see what we can do. Thanks.
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July 21, 2009, 6:45 p.m. CST
July 21, 2009, 7:06 p.m. CST
July 21, 2009, 7:13 p.m. CST
In a row without someone crying or hating! Full moon perhaps?
July 21, 2009, 8:42 p.m. CST
July 21, 2009, 8:46 p.m. CST
Looks great - we had a trailer for it before Moon. Cinema is actually a great place to watch movies like this - because the sound is so good - you really get a feel for the live event. The Jack White/Page/The Edge movie looks good to.
July 22, 2009, 10:08 a.m. CST
ABSOLUTELY ELECTRIFYING! The Godfather of Soul in his split busting, camel walking heyday is a sight to behold. The whole theatre was tempted to get up and dance halfway through the thing. <p> Our only complaint: the thing just ends abruptly in the middle of JB's performance. We all sat their slack-jawed and disappointed because we wanted MORE MORE MORE! Hopefully the director will take all of JB's footage and release it on BluRay/DVD by itself! <p> I highly recommend y'all catch this movie when it hits your hood!
July 22, 2009, 5:42 p.m. CST
thats because you suck, trollfucker. This is music for real men. Thanks Capone. I know this will kick ass.
July 22, 2009, 6:21 p.m. CST
I saw Soul Power during the Tribeca Film Festival. It's fantastic. If this film comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
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