Why did it take until 2010 for the T.A.M.I. Show to get a legal DVD release? It’s not like people haven’t been jonesing for it. Until now, it’s been the most famous rock & roll concert flick that was damn near impossible to see — I’d only watched it on my crummy Nineties bootleg VHS copy until last summer, when I went to a secret and illicit screening in a factory in industrial Brooklyn, where it was projected onto a sheet on the wall. (It was like going to the rave on Beverly Hills, 90210, where Dylan and Brenda needed an egg to get in.) Everybody knows the story of how James Brown stole the show, defying all the laws of gravity with his “Night Train” camel walk, then resisting all efforts to drag him offstage in “Please, Please, Please.” But due to the tangled legal rights around the artists, with all the different labels and different managers involved, The T.A.M.I. Show sat in the vaults for decades. So the greatest rock & roll movie ever made was bootleg only. Until now.
No matter how many times you’ve watched that James Brown clip on YouTube, the full effect can only be absorbed when you watch the whole show, a celebration of all the diversity and exuberance of early Sixties rock & roll. Originally a TV special filmed in October 1964, it has all sorts of wildly divergent stars, from the road-tested Motown choreography of the Supremes and Marvin Gaye to the goofball surfer-boy antics of Jan and Dean. (Jan’s striped rugby shirt is, against all odds, one of the movie’s finest fashion achievements.) There’s the girl from New York City, Lesley Gore, looking shy and eager and desperate to be liked in such stellar company, which lends an undeniable power to her rendition of “You Don’t Own Me.” There’s Gaye strutting through “Hitch Hike.” There’s a couple of terrible British Invasion bands — when you see Gerry & The Pacemakers do their version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” with Chuck Berry right there in person to laugh at them, you can smell the flop sweat.
James Brown’s performance is kind of like Hamlet or Hawaii — universally praised, yet still underrated, because there’s no way to do it justice. Elvis used to rent out movie theaters in Memphis just to sit there in the dark watching this scene over and over, and even when you know it’s coming, there’s no way to brace yourself for the ritual where he shakes off the cape and fights his way back to the microphone for one more chorus. The Rolling Stones got stuck in the hopeless situation of having to follow JB, and according to legend, they begged to go on before him instead. You can see how daunted they are, with uncharacteristic terror all over their faces. But that just adds to the feral edge of “It’s All Over Now,” as Mick Jagger basically sings for his life — he wiggles, he claps, he hops on one foot, he brings down the house. By the time the Stones hit those climactic guitar explosions in the final choruses, it really is all over now.
My personal favorite? It has to be Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, who rock harder and dance filthier than even the most devout fan of their studio work would guess, tearing it up on “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Mickey’s Monkey.” Smokey’s always been famous as the elegant falsetto poet of lost love, the guy who wrote those unbelievably intricate and sophisticated Motown ballads about girl worship (“The Tracks of My Tears,” “Choosey Beggar,” “I’m The One You Need”). But until seeing The T.A.M.I. Show, I had no idea how nasty he could get. If nasty was all Smokey ever wanted to do, he could have cornered the market on nasty. And that just sends me back to “The Tracks of My Tears” hearing more in the song than ever. “People call me the life of the party”? Damn, Smokey — that must have been some party.