Soul Power with Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
The first thing
you see walking into the hotel interview suite is the Soul Power
poster, gaudy neon pink lettering in the style of early 1970s movie
one-sheets, James Brown front-and-center, mouth wide in song
under a 1970s style mustache (once again in fashion). Looking at
the one-sheet, you get a sense memory of the smell of dirty carpets
from fraying movie palaces of the time.
Levy-Hinte's resume is comprised mostly of projects as producer,
idiosyncratic, filled with the voice of the filmmaker he's protecting.
He's on the phone as I arrive, and it's easy to figure he's making
snap choices on an economic crunch a film that's about to start
production is facing. It's not a things-are-tough-all-over glimpses,
but a small moment of what any day is for a hands-on producer.
as an editor, working on Leon Gast's Oscar-winning boxing
documentary When We Were Kings. The powerful, joyous Soul
Power is constructed from footage of the twelve-hour concert
in Zaire that was meant to accompany the 1974 "The Rumble in
the Jungle" fights shown in that film, always known a definitive
R&B event. But the footage hadn't been seen in years. There
was such a wealth of material for Kings that footage hadn't even
been cut together, and was stored in various places. The result,
drawing only upon contemporary footage, is thrilling for being such
a piece of anachronism: a great documentary experience drawn from
film left fallow for almost thirty-five years. It looks downright
fresh yet outright of its production era.
How many other
films would be possible from all those dusty cartons, I ask. "It's
probably only limited by one's imagination. Certainly for me, I
saw 'Soul Power' when I looked at all the footage. And I
was fortunate enough to be able to find it and present it. Maybe
another film or two in there at least. For me, it was just getting
out the concert performances, which is the easiest thing to do.
You have the song, you have the camera angles, you can cut it in
three days. But what really takes time in a [feature-length] vérité
documentary is sifting through, it's like doing a puzzle blindfolded.
You're feeling the parts, and you're doing all the iterations until
it comes into sync."
performances could fill a chapterized DVD. "That's a great
thing as well. There's an audience for these wonderful performances,
our common cultural inheritance. Not to be sanctimonious, but I
thing they're a public good, but they've been locked up, it takes
resources and some kind of money to edit and online and mix and
all these things. I'd love to be able to bring [the rest] to fruition."
Four great cameramen
of the era shot the bulk of the footage: Albert Maysles, Paul
Goldsmith, Kevin Keating and Roderick Young. "They
shot in this vérité way, but they have their specific
disposition for how they went about it," Levy-Hinte says.
known for being the best of his time watching the scene with one
eye and the world outside the frame with the other. "Yes. The
greatest thing is that he shot with the most ridiculously awkward
cameras, the Arri BL, big magazines on it, extremely heavy, a big
lens. It didn't have any kind of wheels on it, you had to pull the
focus and pull the zoom, the fact that he could compose such elegant
shots on it is so amazing from a purely physical perspective. But
whenever you see him? He has both eyes open. Then he has his light
meter on top, in this little carrying case, so he can watch his
light meter and he can rack his exposure. Those four guys were similar.
They really had a tremendously intuitive sense. They kind of melded
with that machine. It makes all the difference in the world. There
are great cinematographers working today [in documentary], to be
sure, but in that vérité realm, what passes for work
is almost, instead of being thoughtful, it's just, 'I'll run the
camera, kind of point it in the right direction.' It is very rare
that they'll sustain it. When I talk about each camera roll being
its own single film, the premise of that is that every moment is
connected to every moment. Whatever situation they were in, there
wanted to make sure every frame was usable, to continue to evolve
the shot and to find how to portray it, anticipating how you'd cut
it and move around in it."
that makes me nervous now is that tools are so accessible-as they
should be-but I don't think people respect them in the way they
once did," he continues. "In 'Soul Power,' those
cinematographers would come to a scene, they'd know, 'Okay, I have
three rolls for the rest of the day.' Of course they missed some
things but what they got, they were engaged in. I've been
doing large format still photography. You take one shot and if it
takes you an hour you're actually ahead of the game for a single
image. You're extremely aware what you're doing, how you're doing
it, how all the elements line up. But still I'm not experienced
enough, but I'm very much into the discipline of the craft. Not
that we should wear a crown of thorns, but sometimes a little more
pain. A slightly heavier camera can help."