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Lincoln Center's James Brown Fest Showcases Peak Human Achievement

Yes, you should get up and do your thang: Brown in Soul Power.
Yes, you should get up and do your thang: Brown in Soul Power.

Is it overselling it to claim that James Brown's 18-minute performance on 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show rivals the moon landing as the choicest footage of human achievement of the 1960s? Stanley Kubrick couldn't fake this: Hot-footing in a crisp, checkered vest and jacket, Brown connected the world of then to the world of now. (You can relish it at two rare screenings of the omnibus concert film at Lincoln Center Aug. 31.)

First, he glides through the mod "Out of Sight," often on just one foot. Then, stopping on an unexpected dime, he lays into the ballad "Prisoner of Love," but that archaic song can't hold him. Like the song form itself, or the teen-oriented pop of Jan and Dean and the rest of The T.A.M.I. Show, "Prisoner of Love" is an envelope, and Brown's a hot coal, burning right through.

Less than two minutes in, niceties like verse and chorus fall away in favor of a pulsing groove. His cries grow more urgent, the song reduced to the rhythmic bed upon which he humps and screams. Reduction, revelation, revolution: Brown knew that music didn't need the rest of that song stuff. His Famous Flames's impassioned vamps would power the birth of funk just more than two years later, and then disco and hip-hop and everything else after.

But that's now. Then, after leveling "Prisoner of Love," Brown screams "Please Please Please" in a state of collapse. The business with the cape — a valet ushering the Hardest Working Man offstage — begins just eight minutes into the set. Brown throws it off, pirouettes, shimmies with the Flames, double-times his footwork, executes a slick proto-moonwalk, and then still has it in him to shriek-ask the mostly white crowd to shout back the "night" in "Night Train" 14 separate times. They do.

It matters that it's "Night Train." The song has roots in the 1940s, in Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. Brown reduced it to a groove and chucked lyrics in favor of a list of cities he was booked to play. But it still had to signify: Any train Brown invited America's youth to hop would have to be a black one. The itinerary he hollers confirms it: Atlanta, Raleigh, Richmond, Baltimore, all part of a chugging, chitlin-circuit tour steeped in the past but surging toward the funk to come — and our rhythmic present. Did those white teens gaping in that audience know that they were on Brown's train, like it or not? That the whole world was?

They scream for Brown, especially a pair of black girls whom director Steve Binder cuts to several times. But the wails are doubled when the Rolling Stones take the stage — the teens seem to tear their throats as raw as Brown's. The legend of The T.A.M.I. Show, retold in the recent James Brown biopic, has always been that the Stones were shaken following Brown's set. They may have been, but like time, the kids were on their side. Brown's act, all that manly too-muchness, had nothing to do with what anyone on that bill but Smokey Robinson's Miracles were attempting. Young Mick and company may pale behind him, but they benefit from comparison to the bill's other white bands: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "Surfin' U.S.A."–era Beach Boys, also-rans the Barbarians. In that crowd, only the Stones got that rock 'n' roll has something to do with sex. (The only white performer who sings songs of any emotional consequence is Lesley Gore, who is more wised-up/grown-up than her heartsick "It's My Party" suggests. She's dressed like a valedictorian.)

The T.A.M.I. Show caught Brown at his physical but not musical peak. Its singularity is due less to his having a good night than it is to simple oversight: There's simply no crisply shot, concert-length recording of Brown in his strongest period, 1967 to early 1971, the pioneering stretch between "Cold Sweat," the big bang from which most contemporary pop burst, and the dissolution of the J.B.s, the Bootsy Collins band. (The famous 1968 Boston Garden show, available on DVD, is essential but ill-lit and haphazardly shot; a '68 Apollo date looks somewhat better but runs short — and only rarely is the camera in the right spot.)

There are still treasures to savor in the Lincoln Center lineup. The thrilling doc Soul Power features 13 minutes of Brown and band playing Zaire in 1974. He's post-peak, barely, but still higher up than most performers could ever hope for, and he hits his splits just fine for a man just north of 40. Funking through '73's "The Payback," perhaps the last of his great hits, Brown himself seems struck by the mad brilliance of the line "I don't know karate/but I know ka-razy." He barks it twice, savoring it. Soul Power (directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte) is a companion film to Leon Gast's Oscar-winning 1996 doc, When We Were Kings, which lays out the story behind the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire in '74. Kings offers a couple minutes of Brown's Soul Power performance, the main event at a three-day music fest pairing American and African artists; both films boast priceless scenes of Brown speaking truths that could be lyrics. In Kings, expounding to Don King how the Golden Rule should apply to race relations, the Godfather of Soul uses code to warn everyone he's getting close to swearing: "I don't want to have to use the f-m backwards." Brown closes Soul Power by telling a cameraman that what he's about to say should be the very last thing in the movie: "When you get up and walk out and look down the street, you say to yourself, 'Damn right, I'm somebody.' "

Soul Power catches Brown in hallways, in cars, constantly beset by admirers. Even motormouth Ali pays homage, greeting Brown with Brown's own words: "I got ants in my pants — I gotta dance!" The rest of the film is choice speechifying from Ali and backstage and concert footage of the other acts: the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Big Black, and Bill Withers, whose pained and piercing "Hope She'll Be Happier" has never sounded better. It's worth scoring a DVD of Soul Power to hear festival or-ganizer Stewart Levine's behind-the-scenes tales of the event: Withers was often infuriated with vainglorious Brown, especially after Brown showed up for the plane ride to Africa with tens of thousands of extra pounds of luggage. Even Withers's quiet, stunning performance —with only his own acoustic guitar — owes much to Brown's '60s breakthrough. Gorgeous and thoughtful, "Hope She'll Be Happier" is itself a reduction. It's a man singing only the best parts over a vamp.

The festival is rounded out by a performance compilation (unavailable for screening at press time) and three comedies (intentional and non-). In these, Brown's act defibrillates un-funky white folks. The least is Ski Party, a Frankie Avalon time killer in which Brown shuffles through "I Feel Good"; there are more bikinis than you'd expect but little else of note. Rocky IV and John Landis's The Blues Brothers, meanwhile, both look crazier every year. I prefer Brown's gaudy, jingoistic Rocky performance to the uncharacteristic preacher-man act that stirs the souls of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Landis's noisy, deadpan comedy of car chases and cultural appropriation may be the reason Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal have blues bands, but I'll give the movie this: It means well, even when it casts Aretha as a killjoy. Still, it's hard not to be thankful Dan Aykroyd was born too early to feel hip-hop.

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