One time I saw James Brown play in a theater. It was the kind of place that has a U-shaped corridor between the doors into the theater and the seating area. You buy your tickets and enter the theater, walk through the corridor and find the door that opens into the part of the theater where your seats are located, and then enter the seating area, find your seat and sit down. After we had been sitting for awhile waiting for the show to start we heard this ghostly sax coming from somewhere else in the building. We thought it was the band starting to warm up but it was only one sax and it didn’t sound like it was coming from behind the curtains. As the sax continued to play more and more people in the audience heard it and quieted down. Soon everyone was quiet and it became clear that the doors to the theater from the corridor had been closed and the sax player was walking back and forth through the corridor.
Once the audience had completely settled down one of the doors from the corridor was opened and the sax player, who was Maceo Parker, stepped into the room while he continued to play. By this time he had been playing for awhile and the motherfucker was wailing. The door opened, Maceo’s sax burst forth and the audience exploded which drove Maceo to new heights. For the next ten minutes or so he walked through the audience, playing alone and on fire. He tore the place up and as good as James Brown was, Maceo had upstaged him.
Upstaging James Brown is no small thing. Brown played at the T.A.M.I. show in 1964. He didn’t have Maceo Parker to deal with but he faced an even greater challenge from the other acts on the bill.
The T.A.M.I. Show is a film of the concert which took place over two nights in late October 1964. Free tickets were distributed to local high school students and the best bits from the two shows were combined in the film. The acts ranged from The Barbarians, basically a novelty act featuring a one-armed drummer who played with a prosthetic limb, to the Rolling Stones who headlined and closed the show. Jan & Dean were the emcees and they performed “Here They Come (From All Over the World)”. Jack Nitzsche was the music director who led the house band which included Glenn Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano. All of the music was performed live.
In order of appearance, the bands and groups were Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Leslie Gore, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes, The Barbarians, James Brown and the Famous Flames and the Rolling Stones. Think about that line up for a minute. James Brown wasn’t likely to have too much trouble with the Barbarians, Leslie Gore or Jan & Dean. But Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones on the same bill? Are you kidding me?
The concert took place relatively early in the careers of some of these artists. The Miracles weren’t yet Smokey Robinson and the Miracles although watching their electric performance you can see and hear why they soon would be. The Supremes were not yet Diana Ross and the Supremes even though they performed their two current back-to-back #1 hits “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go?”. The Rolling Stones still had Brian Jones in the lineup, Keith Richards was the pretty one, and “Satisfaction” hadn’t happened yet. Their big numbers were “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now”. On the one hand, maybe these groups hadn’t realized the full extent of their powers, on the other they had to work the audience to make it on performance alone, not reputation and inflatable stage props. These are the performances that made them what they become.
The Beach Boys performance which had been removed from previously released versions of the film after its initial run in theaters is restored in this new DVD version. Almost all of the performances are terrific. This was a special event that was designed from the ground up to be released as a feature film. The bands approached it as just what it was intended to be, a marketing tool which could have very positive and very lucrative consequences. They wanted to shine and they had to do it sharing the stage with some of the most accomplished performers of the day. They had to bring their A game and they had to bring it live. They did. The show is tremendous.
So what about James Brown? The Stones had the choice spot closing the show but Brown came on right before them. Could he outshine the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Beach Boys? Could he put on a performance which the audience would still remember once the Stones took the stage?
It was no contest. James Brown owned. He owned the Stones, he owned the Supremes, he owned all the other groups, he owned their entourages, he owned their mothers, lovers and pets. In later interviews Keith Richards would say that following James Brown at the T.A.M.I. show was the single biggest mistake of their careers. No matter how well they performed, they had no chance. If you’ve ever wondered why James Brown was called “the hardest working man in show business”, watch this movie. His performance alone is worth the price of the film. And he puts this on with only a short spot to work with. Imagine what it would be like after an hour’s show where he left 10 lbs of sweat on the stage before he got to what you see in the T.A.M.I. show.
If you like the music from this period, see this movie. It’s great.
In the little blurb about this blog that sits over in the right column I wrote that music has been an enduring passion for most of my life. “U23D” is one of the reasons why. No matter how old you get you never want to die because something like this may come along tomorrow. I went to the show with my wife and son with every intention of watching and listening with critical faculties alert but the sight and sound was so incredible I just lost myself in the gig. Afterwards we were sitting in an Irish bar in DC having burgers and I said to my son that the review of the film on Tuned In was going to suck because all I could say was “Wow! That was absolutely amazing!” I’ve thought of more things to say but the bottom line is the same. “U23D” is absolutely amazing.
“U23D” was digitally filmed and recorded in 3D and 5.1 surround sound. It’s taken from several stadium shows performed in Buenos Aires during U2’s “Vertigo” tour and is being shown in IMAX and other theaters equipped for 3D projection. We saw it at the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theatre at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. If the last time you saw anything in 3D was with those flimsy glasses with the red and green cellophane “lenses” that made some things look kinda sorta 3D and put wavy multicolored lines around everythng else, you’re in for a big surprise. You still wear glasses (right over your regular glasses if you have them) but the red and green lenses are gone and there are no color artifacts. Instead, the scene you’re watching simply looks 3 dimensional.
They’ve taken a number of IMAX nature films and done some techno-wizardry so they can be shown in 3D. I saw one recently and it was okay but it looked like an old nature film with 3D effects layered on here and there. “U23D” was digitially filmed for 3D from the ground up. With some camera angles and positions the effect is 3D but it doesn’t look real, with others it looks completely real. We’ve all seen concert films where the camerman is on the stage with the band. This doesn’t look like that. This looks like you’re on stage with the band. I’m not talking about some kind of “you’ll feel like you’re there with U2!” marketing bullshit, I’m talking about it actually looks like you’re standing on the stage. At one point the camera closes in on Bono and as he sings he reaches one hand out to the audience, to you. I had to actively and consciously restrain myself from reaching to grasp his hand. It’s not like you’re watching a movie, it’s like he’s right there. And that’s one of the weaker 3D effects. There are a number of shots looking up at the band from the audience’s perspective. When the person in front of the camera throws their arms up in the air you will think it’s the guy in the chair in front of you in the theater. The next time it happens and you look right at the guy in front of you, you will see that it isn’t him – but you will believe the guy next to him in your peripheral vision is throwing his arms up in the air. It has to be seen to be believed.
Okay, so it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. How does it sound? The surround sound in the theater where we saw it was spectacular – huge, precise, clear and they turned it up. And the band was terrific. The phrase “anthemic rock” was pretty much invented to describe U2 and they play these songs with such authority and conviction. They have been doing this kind of music so well for so long they are masterful. The enormous crowd is delerious and you wonder how a band can generate so much raw emotion and enthusiasm in so many people for so many years. Watching “U23D” I had an overwhelming sense that an important part of their success is that they appear to have never lost sight of the idea that’s it’s not about them, it’s about the music and the power that the music has to bring a message of humanity, equality, unity to the audience. One. Uno. They play like their goal is not to make money and be rock stars but to give the audience what they wanted when they came – something wonderful and extraordinary they’ll remember forever. They play to knock you out and they deliver.
Over half the set list (at least that part of the set list shown in the film) is taken from the pre-Achtung Baby period. “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “With or Without You”, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, “Bullet the Blue Sky” and more. In “U2 by U2” the band is talking about how difficult it was to get a recording of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that satisfied them and how they ended up cobblng together the final version on “The Joshua Tree” from bits and pieces. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. says “On the record, musically, it’s not half the song it is live.” I read that and thought “Where the Streets Have No Name? Are you fucking kidding me?” Now I know what he was talking about.
If you live in or near a city that has an IMAX theater showing “U23D” it will be easy; if you don’t, it will be harder. Maybe a lot harder. Doesn’t matter. Whether or not you like U2’s music or their politics, if you love music (and why would you you be reading this blog if you didn’t), do whatever it takes to see this film. Sit dead center toward the back of the theater. After they get a look at “U23D” every band is going to have to have their own IMAX 3D concert film. But “U23D” is the first, this is the one that all the rest are going to be compared to, this is the one that changed the world.