DVD review

1964 concert film 'T.A.M.I. Show' has era's stars: James Brown, Rolling Stones

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ever clap your hands hummingbird-fast? How many decibels was your 14-year-old scream? And could James Brown really do that with his feet?

These are the questions you may ask yourself after witnessing the stunning physical feats that compose "The T.A.M.I. Show" -- a revelatory 1964 concert film featuring performances from Brown, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and other gods from rock-and-roll's then-nascent Mount Olympus.

Equally awe-inspiring: the energy of the concert's teenage crowd -- an auditorium of young screamers, hand-clappers and limb-shakers who sound wild enough to drown out a latter-day arena of Justin Bieber faithful.

Nearly 50 years since its theatrical release, the film has become mythic. Screened in American theaters in 1964 and '65, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press and quickly vanished into the mists of pop lore. Surviving through the decades via warbly, dubbed VHS cassettes and bootlegged Japanese laserdiscs, the film will finally see its first official release on DVD on Tuesday. (It aired on WETA last week, too.)

But "The T.A.M.I. Show" isn't so much a nostalgia trip as a hormonal hurricane trapped in celluloid. Through the inky blacks and cloudy whites crackles a teenage electricity that feels both surreal and timeless.

Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lesley Gore, Gerry and the Pacemakers -- it's hard to fathom all of these artists co-habiting the same era, let alone the same stage. Yet, here they are in California's Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a modest 3,000-seater that hosted the Academy Awards throughout most of the 1960s.

The presentation was intended to be the first in an annual series of concerts-turned-awards-shows (T.A.M.I. clunkily stood for "Teenage Awards Music International"). Instead it was a one-off, filmed over the course of five hours in October 1964 -- a marathon of sweaty performances and spastic dancing.

Everyone looks impossibly young. A 24-year-old Robinson sings "You Really Got a Hold on Me," letting his voice crack and explode in all the right places. A clean-shaven, 25-year-old Gaye delivers "Can I Get a Witness" with a grit that belies the lithe crooning that would soon define him. A 20-year-old Diana Ross leads her Supremes through "Baby Love" sporting a ginormous coif that appears to weigh more than the rest of her body. Bikini-clad babes shimmy in the background throughout.

Those overzealous, underdressed dancers ride phantom surfboards during the Beach Boys set, a four-song romp featuring the falsetto of Brian Wilson before he withdrew from the public eye. (But don't overlook little brother Dennis, 19, who slaps his drum kit with a surprising ferocity.)

But despite all the onstage dynamite, nothing compares to the atomic frisson of the concert's undeniable show-stealer. "You're about to meet probably the wildest guy in the business today," says emcee Jan Berry of surf-pop duo Jan and Dean, announcing the arrival of one James Brown.

When the Godfather, then 36, comes strutting out under the klieg lights, playtime is over. He takes the stage with moves that appear to defy the laws of physics, his legs moving in a staccato blur that'll have you wondering if the DVD is skipping.

By the time Brown caps his four-song set with the tightly coiled funk of "Night Train," the knees of his slacks are showing visible wear from Brown repeatedly throwing himself to the floor.

The film's denouement is provided by the young Rolling Stones, who -- according to the liner notes -- unsuccessfully tried to wiggle out of their closing slot following Brown. Could you have blamed them? The crowd didn't, greeting Mick and the boys with some of the most ecstatic shrieks of the night.

Where the audience found the energy in this epic concert's waning minutes is just one of "The T.A.M.I. Show's" many blissful mysteries.

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