Monday, April 19, 2010

Back From Oblivion: The T.A.M.I. Show

A couple of weeks back, in my piece on the declining art of the film poster, I wrote about "Captain" George Henderson and his wonderfully ramshackle film poster shop, Memory Lane. It was while visiting George's shop in 1980 or so that I first encountered James Brown's performance on the T.A.M.I. Show. (The acronym translates as Teenage Awards Music International.) George used to smoke cigarette after cigarette and watch videotapes of movies or TV shows as you plowed through his goods. Taking a break from one fruitful dig, I talked to George for a couple of minutes and then turned to look at what he was watching. Playing on his small TV set was a Betamax tape of the T.A.M.I. Show. What I watched was a revelation as James Brown sang, shimmied and shook his way through four outstanding, mesmerizing songs. The piece de resistance being, of course, "Please Please Please." In the song, as Brown begged his now-absent girl to take him back, he fell hard to his knees in despair. One of his Fabulous Flames back-up singers rushed to his side, patted him repeatedly on his back and helped the slumped and exhausted singer to his feet. Brown's capeman, Danny Ray, came up behind him and placed an elaborate cape over his shoulders as the two men helped Brown off stage. During all this, the band and back-up singers kept going. Before he could be led off, Brown stopped, screamed, threw off the cape and stumbled back to the mic. He did this four times with the same scenario played out each time. He didn't break character until well after the song finished. George turned to me and said "that is a man possessed." Though George was referring to the story being told aurally and visually in the song, I also took it to mean that Brown would do anything to make all that he did on stage memorable (he was called The Hardest Working Man In Show Business for a reason). I didn't see who came next (that in a moment) as I had to leave, but that was my first encounter with the legendary 1964 T.A.M.I. Show.

The story has been oft-told that this was to be the first in a series of concert films that were to be recorded and edited on the spot and in the movie theatres two weeks after the event. The T.A.M.I Show was shot with TV cameras by director Steve Binder and a crew from The Steve Allen Show in what was then called Electronovision - one of the first high-definition video cameras. Then, via kinescope recording, it was converted to film with sufficient enhanced resolution to allow for its big-screen enlargement. The concert itself was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 28th and 29th, 1964. Tickets were free and distributed to local high school students, while local teen favourites Jan and Dean emceed the event. They also performed its appropriate theme song, "Here They Come (From All Over the World)."

This concert pulled together some of the greatest white and black acts of the era (7 of the 12 who appeared on the show are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) on one stage: Jan and Dean (as performers too, not just MCs), Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (I didn't say they were all still remembered today), The Supremes, The Barbarians (who?), James Brown and the Fabulous Flames and...the band that had to follow Brown... The Rolling Stones - who did a very credible job, considering.

There were a dozen reasons that after the theatrical run was finished it virtually disappeared, and there never was a T.A.M.I. Show 2. Except for a few very rough pan-and-scanned TV showings in the Sixties, and equally blurry bootleg videotapes (such as George's) available from the 1970s until March this year, this remarkable document of music was missing in action (the official, cleaned up, widescreen DVD was released finally three weeks ago). The T.A.M.I. Show was not without its odd performances and silly decisions, but several acts, besides Brown, were amazing (Smokey, Marvin, The Supremes and The Stones). The strange, strained failures included The Beach Boys. Their harmonies were still fine, but you could tell (even if you didn't know that The Beach Boys insisted that their segment be excised from the film after the first run) that there were either indifference or fractures there. Supposedly, they wanted their performance removed because this represented one of the last times they performed surf music, the genre that had made them famous. They were moving in a different direction (Pet Sounds, for example, was only two years away), and didn't want this footage out there muddying the waters. But look at Brian Wilson. He seemed painfully uncomfortable doing live performance, barely moving his lips, with a rather fixed/dazed smile on his face. A few months later, he'd stop performing concerts for the next 19 years. Perhaps the management team took a look at this and cooked up an excuse to have the footage removed. Obviously, they had a change of heart as their performance is back in.

Among the silly decisions in the film was the use of the male and female go-go dancers (among them being the then-undiscovered Teri Garr). To say their moves were frantic is an understatement. Poorly choreographed, and shoehorned in at odd moments, they were extremely distracting. Marvin Gaye looked particularly underwhelmed as a few of the dancers raced past him towards the camera as he sang. Also, why the producers decided to have all the performers who had already played do a very short back-up for Lesley Gore (Smokey Robinson looked particularly bored in his one close-up) is beyond me. Okay, it was during "It's My Party," but it was still kinda odd.

Two final notes on Brown's performance. Since the concert film raced from one performer to the next, there was barely a break between Brown and the Stones. My advice is to shut off the DVD for 20 to 30 minutes to let yourself absorb what you have just seen before moving on to the fine Stones performance (or play them in reverse order and let Brown finish). And lastly, because, unlike the other acts, Brown refused to rehearse, the director, Steve Miner (who would later direct Elvis Presley's famous 1968 comeback special), was forced to be very creative with his camera placements and cutting. Or as Brown said to him, "you'll know what to do." Brown not only sent this concert film into the stratosphere (his performance here always gives me goosebumps), Miner elevated his game to such a degree that every shot, every close-up, every moment of the filming of Brown's performance was rich and fulfilling.

There's something to be said about going by the seat of your pants, and I for one am happy that Brown insisted on not rehearsing, because his off-the-cuff approach made this concert film the legend it has become.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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