Friday, October 22, 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964; dir. Steve Binder) often appears on lists of the 5 or 10 best rock documentaries. It was shot with special television cameras that allowed conversion to film—not common in the early 60s. The black and white documentary is a compilation of two concerts held in Santa Monica, California, on April 28 and 29, 1964. In ways it resembles a television show of the day, with singers walking on and off stage with their own guitars, plugging them into small amplifiers, and then singing. Wildly distracting disco dancers are always gyrating in the background. They’re an artifact of the times. Also an artifact is how the film is introduced—by the 60s duo Jan and Dean, cruising on skateboards, driving cars, running along the sidewalk, heading for the concert, mimicking the requisite traits of what passed for “cool” in 1964. Among the aspects of the film that mark it historically and, occasionally, as dated, are Jan and Dean, who in 2010 simply come across as weird.

Once the show is underway, the film really moves. The sound equipment used in the film was by modern standards primitive, so it’s sometimes difficult to hear the singers (especially Chuck Berry), but usually the music is at least listenable. Among the best performers are the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, and James Brown. If not for any other reason, James Brown makes this film worth seeing. He gives a career-defining performance. He acts, struts, slides, croons, screams, screeches, and by the end of his 17-minute set he’s drenched in sweat and exhausted, and the audience verges on riot.

That audience is almost entirely white—middle-class teenagers and students in their 20s. You see, especially with James Brown and the Stones, the kind of hysteria we saw when the Beatles made their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In one scene, a chic young woman screams and dances wildly to the music on stage. Her somewhat older boyfriend—staid and conventional, with a pipe and a tweed jacket (frankly, I don’t remember whether he was wearing the jacket or smoking the pipe, but it would have been in his character), gazes at her with shock and incredulity. It’s an image that defines the cultural divide this film is contributing to. One can imagine parents from the 1960s watching their sons and daughters (mostly their daughters) in the audience of this film with fear and uncertainty.

Here we find an early example of how the entertainment industry sought to market rock music to the young generation. The opening scenes of the film show Jan and Dean engaged in a series of hijinks as they make their way to the theatre. Jan and Dean also host the concert, introducing each act, continuing to play jokes and act up on stage. Disco dancers and their frenetic movements (which would bring anyone to exhaustion) keep the atmosphere energized, so that if a particular group fails to play well the audience won’t notice. There’s no suggestion here that rock music might appeal to a wider audience than the one in the film. It’s cool and it’s hip and it’s young. More than that, the film seems to argue, it’s an inherent product of the younger generation that marks and distinguishes it from the rest of society.

In The T.A.M.I. Show you see rock music as it was in 1964–still developing, moving towards the explosive middle years of the 60s (they’re almost here in the film) that forced some of these groups to grow and redefine themselves (particularly, the Beach Boys—the Stones were already on the way) and that consigned others (Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas) to obsolescence.

The Beach Boys give a strong performance that reminds us that their harmonies were not a product of studio engineering. They could really sing, despite their striped jackets. Their set is tight and fast-paced. In 1964 they were a few years away from the transformations that would bring Pet Sounds, one of the finest of American rock albums.

Chuck Berry seems almost out of place in the film. He’s the only performer who sings in the barebones rock style of the 1950s. In 1963 he had finished serving a jail sentence—he had been convicted of having sex with a 14-year old girl. He appears in three short segments at the beginning of the film, and the effect is that he seems segmented off from the rest of the performers, as if he is damaged goods. He’s clearly not among the featured singers in the film.

Lesley Gore was a popular, successful singer of the early 1960s, performing a type of music that would seem increasingly out of style as the decade progressed. Most of her songs about traditional romance hardly strain traditional boundaries, yet her performance of “You Don’t Own Me” in this film delivers a strong feminist message. It’s a remarkable statement.

The T.A.M.I. Show offers an interesting study of the racial politics of the music industry in 1964. The only time we see color among the dancers on stage is when a black group is playing. There’s a different performance style among these black groups—the white singers tend simply to stand and sing, while Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Brown, and the Supremes dance and move in rhythm, acting out as they perform. Compared to them, most of the white singers are stale. (The Rolling Stones, who perform songs written out of the American blues tradition, are the exception). Some of the black singers almost seem to ingratiate themselves to the audience—at the end of their songs, the Supremes bow their heads in humility but also one might suggest in submission. There’s still a subtle disconnect and discomfort among these singers racially. Only at the end of the film do they appear on stage together, and even then they’re singing alongside rather than with each other. The fact that black singers are here at all is a statement. Yet when James Brown and the Famous Flames step on stage everything changes. In Brown’s performance, and in the performance of the Rolling Stones, you can see the pop world of Jan and Dean and Gerry and the Pacemakers and Lesley Gore coming to an end.

This fascinating and often exciting film is entertaining from beginning to end, if only you give yourself up to the time and its contexts.

No comments: