At The New Yorker, David Remnick makes the case that Get On Up, the James Brown biopic opening this weekend, is the second-greatest film about Brown ever made. The first? A lengthy clip of Brown’s performance at a legendary 1964 concert showcased in the documentary T.A.M.I. Show, released that same year. Watch it for yourself, and you won’t need further persuasion. But then, it may seem dismissive to say to just watch an old document of the real thing instead of a tribute to the real thing that’s been assembled with care and not-inconsiderable talent (Chadwick Boseman has received near-universal praise for his portrayal of Brown — that guy’s going places). Get On Up is worth seeking out. But I strongly recommend checking out this performance (and reading Remnick’s accompanying commentary) before doing so.
Even though one basic function of a biopic of an artist is to contextualize what that artist meant to his time and place, it would still be helpful for modern viewers unfamiliar with Brown to do some firsthand research. And Brown’s T.A.M.I. Show set is an astounding showcase for everything that made him a dynamite entertainer. From the second he shimmies onto the stage to the accompaniment of The Famous Flames, the crowd can’t get enough of him, and it’s easy to understand why. We of the contemporary era sometimes scoff at how older music was ever considered scandalous, but Brown’s blazingly sensual moves make it plain why many parents clutched their heart back in the day. Pretty words don’t really do him justice, though — when you watch it, all that the dance moves make you want to say is “holy shit.” The set makes for a thoroughly entertaining 18 minutes.
The T.A.M.I. show (the acronym either meant “Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International”) brought together some of the greatest rock and roll and R&B performers of the day. Besides Brown, there were The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones and more. Brown and The Famous Flames played “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please Please Please” and “Night Train.” Brown was livid that he wasn’t the closing act, and that pushed him to dance as hard as he did. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones later said that going on after Brown was the biggest mistake of the band’s career.
When you watch this clip, you are not sitting at your laptop or at your work computer. You are with the thousands of shrieking teenagers in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. You are watching Brown move his feet so furiously that it seems a miracle that the floor beneath him isn’t flayed to splinters. You are watching him pull off his “cape act” for the first time, just as those kids did. There’s a value to these kinds of documents that has no equal in fiction film. That’s why any viewing of Get On Up should be paired with a real experience of what Brown was like as a performer.
You can see the whole film via a Collector’s Edition DVD from Shout! Factory, which features the entire two-day concert.