Three Concert Films That Capture the Soul of James Brown


Late in October of 1964, a crowd of teenagers gathered at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. They were there for a concert billed as “The Excitement, Entertainment and Music of Teenage America!” The venue was packed two nights with local high school kids who were given free tickets by the concert’s promoters. Everyone was screaming from the very first act of the show, a set split by Chuck Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Also on the bill were Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, The Supremes and a sizable portion of the British Invasion. Closing out the event were The Rolling Stones, ostensibly the most thrilling performers on the list. It was perhaps the biggest mistake of their career.

Their error was to let producer Bill Sargent put them on after James Brown. The Godfather of Soul’s 18-minute performance is now the stuff of legend, an explosion of kinetic energy that burst forth like a water cannon of soul. Aided by the combined dancing and singing talents of The Famous Flames, Brown’s opening salvo of “Out of Sight” isn’t so much a song as it is a rhythmic celebration of movement itself. “Please Please Please,” complete with the classic fake-out of the singer being led off stage in exhaustion only to fling off the cape and return to the microphone, has all of the drama of The Passion. This makes the final number, a blissful and delirious rendition of “Night Train,” something of an ecstatic resurrection. By the time the Stones took the stage, the audience had already witnessed no less than an apotheosis of American music.

You can see this performance and the rest of the concert in the theatrically released version of The T.A.M.I. Show. The merits of the film are more due to the artist himself than those who had the unenviable task of trying to cram lightning into a bottle. Brown’s constant, unpredictable movement can be hard to capture no matter how many cameras are used. This particular video record (made via “Electronovision,” an early video technology) feels like an exercise in chasing after a performance rather than anticipating it. The benefits of editing after the fact allow director Steve Binder to follow Brown’s more dramatic jumps, but it isn’t foolproof. At one point the singer’s head actually falls back out of a close-up so suddenly you can practically hear the cameraman swearing under his breath.

This is unfortunate because Brown’s style really does lend itself to the big screen in spite of its high level of difficulty to be captured. From far away he seems like an impossibly kinetic force, with the fastest legs on earth. Up close you can see where he got the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” title, his stricken expression locked into his feverish commitment to the music and his face covered in sweat. There’s a better sense of this in two other nonfiction films about the Zaire ’74 music festival and its accompanying “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

First came the fight, organized by boxing impresario Don King and bankrolled by the dictatorial president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. This was followed by the concert, put together by American producer Stewart Levine and South African musician Hugh Masekela. Filmmaker Leon Gast was brought along to make a documentary, with him a crew including Albert Maysles. Due to various rights issues, however, Gast wasn’t able to finish the project until 1996. When We Were Kings was the first of two films made from the footage, focusing mostly on the boxing match. It was followed in 2008 with Soul Power, a documentary on the music festival directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, who edited the earlier film.

James Brown and Muhammad Ali

The Zaire docs make for a fascinating double feature, in part due to a real affinity between their biggest stars. Ali, like Brown, is an incredibly charismatic individual whose performances are hard to really capture on film. The boxer often speaks in poetry just as the musician often sings in shouts. They both instantly become the most exciting person on screen when they walk into a frame. And moreover they share an understanding of showmanship.

The hinge of When We Were Kings is, of course, the fight itself. No one expected Ali to win, as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton explain in interviews conducted by Gast in the 1990s. Foreman was younger, stronger, more impressive. Yet Ali pulled it out through strategy and patience, using a “rope-a-dope” technique. Feigning exhaustion, he threw himself against the ropes and let the larger man pound it out until, rounds later, he had punched himself to weakness. That was when Ali struck, knocking Foreman out in the 8th round. This strategy not only made him the undisputed world heavyweight champion, but it was also an incredibly exciting thing to watch.

What is Brown’s routine with the cape, so thrilling in The T.A.M.I. Show, but a musical version of the “rope-a-dope”? The two men, singer and fighter, approached their arts with the same combination of extraordinary resilience and high drama. Gast punctuates When We Were Kings with clips of Brown’s performance at Zaire ’74, building a unified tone from the energy of these two events. Soul Power is made much the same way, including many interview clips of Ali in the lead up to the fight amongst the concert footage. Kusama-Hinte is also careful not to repeat the mistake of The Rolling Stones, using Brown’s performance footage at the very beginning and very end. A musical champion in a low-cut purple jumpsuit with bellbottoms, his lusty vivacity sets the tone for the entire film.

And what a film it is, assembled with a dynamic spirit that blows The T.A.M.I. Show out of the water. The line-up is certainly as strong as that of the 1964 Santa Monica extravaganza and the footage has a much more open, organic quality. B.B. King was there, along with Celia Cruz, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers and more. The clips selected by Kusama-Hinte vary in tempo, but the overall experience is one of trans-atlantic revelation. This was a politically-minded event, after all, intended to be a celebration of the African Diaspora in the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1970s. The concert is truer to this ideal than the boxing match, a much more global assembly of outspoken musicians brought together in a single venue.

It all culminates in Brown’s final performance, a high-octane triumphant rendition of “Cold Sweat.” There’s a particularly memorable shot of the singer from below, with a stage light hovering just to his left. It beams down, perfectly accentuating the shadows of his rapid movements. This is shot and edited not in a useless attempt to catch up with him, but rather mimicking his ball-lightning style. Kusama-Hinte cuts around the stage, featuring his back-up dancers and band without losing Brown’s spirit. The audience feels as if on the stage, like another dancer caught up in the glow of this iconic musician.

Right in the middle of all this there’s a testament to the optimism of the whole endeavor, a brief speech from the Godfather of Soul. Ten years on from that T.A.M.I. Show performance, he tells the audience about how people ask him to play the “old tunes,” the “oldies but goodies.” “Don’t bury me while I yet live,” he says. He can’t play “the best of James Brown” because “the best of James Brown is yet to come.” This musical defiance echoes not only the confidence of Ali but the spirit of the entire event. This is a shining light in a place that Europeans once chose to see as a “Heart of Darkness,” an assertion of Soul Power in an era of Black Power. At the very end of the film, Brown looks right into the camera and intones: “When you walk out of this movie … when you get up and walk out and look down the street, you say to yourself, ‘Damn right, I’m somebody.’”

And if anyone knows about being somebody, it’s James Brown. His kinetic genius emerges across these three films, distilled from two extraordinary live performances. In 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, he was a force of energy that could barely be contained. By 1974 in Zaire he became nothing less than a quicksilver avatar of life itself.

These three films are a part of James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, which runs this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Soul Power screens on August 29th and 30th, The T.A.M.I. Show on August 31st and When We Were Kings on September 1st.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.