Too bad that the new James Brown biopic, Get On Up, is apparently something of a dud. I’ve heard praise for the performance of Chadwick Bosemen (who was brilliant as Jackie Robinson in 42), and the film is produced by an interesting pair of heavyweights, Imagine’s Brian Grazer and his Satanic Majesty himself, Mick Jagger. But critics and audiences are giving decidedly mixed reviews to the film’s scrambled chronology and the directing chops of Tate Taylor (The Help).
My own interest in James Brown stems from a film I saw in a UCLA class devoted to the movie musical. I was there to soak up the pleasures of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and MGM’s technicolor extravaganzas. So I was nonplussed when I discovered we’d be watching something called The T.A.M.I. Show. Say what? This oddly named concert film captures, in unimpressive black-and-white, an event staged in October 1964, right here in Santa Monica. The T.A.M.I. Show (whose name stands for “Teen Age Music International) was a live concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that was videotaped by a secretive process called “Electronovision” and then transferred to film for theatrical release.
The film version of The T.A.M.I. Show was distributed by American International Pictures, well-known for flicks with youth appeal. So you can imagine the thinking that went into this project. It was clear in 1964 that young people were developing their own subculture, and had the buying power to support it. So the folks behind the show were trying to tap into the kind of musical acts that attracted the young. They gathered a remarkable collection of stars-on-the-rise, mixing soul music (Marvin Gaye), surf music (The Beach Boys), Motown (The Supremes), British Invasion (Gerry and the Pacemakers), and teen angst ballads (Leslie Gore, of “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To” fame). Local legends Jan and Dean were the hosts, zipping into the barnlike auditorium on skateboards. The Civic’s seats were packed with screaming teenagers who were too busy bouncing up and down to actually listen to much of the music. Their energy was matched by the gaggle of go-go dancers who twitched, shimmied, fruged, and watusied non-stop throughout the show. (One, I’m told, was a young Teri Garr.)
Though the final act featured a very youthful Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, who were then new to U.S. audiences, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real star of The T.A.M.I. Show was James Brown. The fabulously pompadoured Brown, nattily attired in a checked jacket and matching vest over a black shirt, strutted onto the stage and belted out four numbers, each more outrageous than the last. He crooned; he cried; he led the audience in a spirited call-and-reponse; he glided through quirky dance steps with an ease that suggests he was a key inspiration for Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Sometimes he was so overcome with the emotion of a song that he dropped to his knees, at which point a backup singer would rush to pat him on the back and drape a regal-looking cape (yes, a cape!) over his shaking shoulders. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nor, apparently, had the mostly middle-class white kids in the audience. Future filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers) was in the crowd as an eighth-grader. When Mick Jaggers followed Brown’s performance, his immediate reaction was “Who is this English twerp? Bring James Brown back on the stage!)
Jagger himself has apparently rued his group’s star billling over Brown, whom he had long idolized. In helping produce Get On Up, he was simply trying to make amends.