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Let’s Get It On The T.A.M.I. Show

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Let’s Get It On: The T.A.M.I. Show

Long-admired concert film The T.A.M.I. Show finally comes to DVD next Tuesday, almost 50 years after its original release in the gloriously named but short-lived Electronovision screening format, and the ensuing half-century has loaded the movie with enough cultural weight to nearly overwhelm the legendary performances therein. One can’t avoid mentioning, for instance, that this harmonious and mutually admiring lineup of black and white musicians took place in October 1964, the exact midpoint between the Beatles’s Ed Sullivan appearances and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. And the influence of T.A.M.I. on future generations of musicians and concert filmmakers remains indelible, to the point where it’s hard to watch James Brown or Marvin Gaye—one absolutely on fire and the other almost boyishly bashful—and not see the precursors to Prince, Michael Jackson, or a hundred other subsequent R&B acts.

These, like so many in T.A.M.I., are benchmark musical performances by now-confirmed geniuses from a time when they were simply pop stars, and famous primarily among teenagers at that. So perhaps the most eye-opening element of this film, decades after most of its performers have been enshrined and immortalized in the popular consciousness, is the way that director Steve Binder and a team of editors, cameramen, and choreographers manage to wrangle these artists into a document that’s expressly designed to avoid any semblance of reverence or calm appraisal. For all its music, T.A.M.I. is perhaps most effective and striking as an example of pure, craven audience exploitation.

It opens with Jan and Dean’s lighter-than-air novelty song “Here They Come,” which rattles off the film’s stars over a montage of the musicians making contrived, staged haste for the venue. Gerry and the Pacemakers mug giddily aboard a full coach bus while barreling toward the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, before Smokey Robinson and the Miracles come bounding out of their hotel and into a taxi. Lesley Gore, assumedly on the back of a convertible, is seen flying through the air, sheet music in hand. In one unforgettable shot, Diana Ross slathers on lipstick and puckers mere inches from the camera, and within a few frames we go from her beaming, widening mouth to the dancers’ rehearsals and onto the film’s real stars: the teenage hordes.

They arrive in a couple rain-flecked buses pulling into a parking lot, and soon a peacoated mob is pushing up against helmeted guards and demanding entry to the concert. By the time “Here They Come” fades out and Jan and Dean themselves come onstage (the former on a skateboard) to host the event, we hear the first strains of T.A.M.I.’s most consistent audio feature: the unceasing blare of young female screams.

They scream for relative elder statesman Chuck Berry and for 18-year-old Gore, singing her current hit “It’s My Party.” They shriek through Robinson and the Miracles’s animated performance, and they howl for a comparably decorous set by the Beach Boys. They caterwaul for black artists and white ones, British and American, male and female, future legends like the Rolling Stones and proto-Nuggets oddballs like the Barbarians. No act escapes the din, and the noise only grows whenever a musician dares even the slightest acknowledgement—a wave, a smile, a wink—of the audience’s presence. Occasionally, the camera will face the crowd and show us pairs of prim young girls, most in thick-frame glasses or gleaming flip hairdos, who are literally hysterical. Their mouths agog, they paw at their own cheeks just to have something to hold on to. They’re quaint now, in their headbands and cardigans, but these displays are also almost embarrassing to watch. You could find more flagrant sexual displays at a contemporary middle school dance, but these 1964 pop fans seem to express something altogether more personal, more carnal, more intimate.

Musicians may have compelled those girls to scream and howl, but it was a 37-year-old ex-Navy engineer, Bill Sargent, who gathered the musicians together in the first place. Sargent was independently wealthy from founding two pay-TV stations, and had most recently conceived of the Electronovision camera in order to show Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, to home audiences. He had grand plans for a series of concerts and accompanying youth scholarships to be bankrolled by Teenage Awards Music International, the company he started to encompass the whole venture. But after assembling the talent and renting the luxurious, International-style Santa Monica Civic, Sargent had used up all his capital, and T.A.M.I.’s distribution rights were bought by the famously trashy and focus-group-driven American International Pictures, creators of camp silliness like Beach Party and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. So while the event’s lineup now reads like a future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot, let’s remember that it was an almost 40-year-old mass-media mogul, aided by known schlockmeisters, who originally had the idea of herding teenagers into a cavernous venue and whipping them into a hormonal frenzy on camera. And to be fair, T.A.M.I.’s thrown-together exuberance is its charm; it’s a deliberately for-teens-only entertainment, clearly built to convey titillation, not lasting artistry.

As such, Binder’s direction can be fairly inert given the material; other than a few Vaseline-bordered close-ups of the singers during ballads, the camera rarely moves from its front-row placement, and often the artists are relegated to the bottom third of the frame, the better to display the spastic, gyrating dancers—including more than a few in bikinis and bulging sweaters—on the risers behind them.

The crowd shots, however, are essential. The first one, right after Berry finishes a shortened but frenzied version of “Johnny B. Goode,” shows not only the expected rows upon rows of histrionic girls, but also, in the foreground, two crew-cut boys getting up and sheepishly leaving their seats. It’s a dichotomy we see throughout, particularly during Gaye’s performance and the Stones’s—the girls barely able to control their emotions, their dates barely able to conceal their sense of ineffectuality. And who could blame them? How could they possibly compete with the likes of Billy J. Kramer, a perfectly pompadoured English singer on Brian Epstein’s roster whose every smile or nod elicits an enraptured audience response?

These shots make plain what the screams only imply: This whole event, no matter Sargent’s wholesome intentions, was first and foremost about encouraging—and capitalizing on—teenage infatuation with pop musicians. T.A.M.I. marks the point at which rock n’ roll’s perceived threat to society was once and for all overwhelmed by its popularity, the point at which concern over swiveling hips on TV gave way to the recognition that the audience for that swiveling was only getting larger—and, perhaps in part due to the birth control pill, which debuted between Elvis’s Milton Berle Show performance and T.A.M.I., growing more sexually adventurous and enabled. The Beatles on Sullivan may have initiated the change, but T.A.M.I.’s sheer commercial-mindedness—the way its producers so cater every moment to the teenage Top 40 fan’s desire for personal attention and group experience—marks its point of no return.

The T.A.M.I. Show’s audience and performers would mature musically and politically in tandem as the next decade played out, and the concert film genre would evolve alongside. As the film’s screaming teens became the campus radicals of the late ’60s, pop music’s hold on that demographic became less purely sexual and more ideological, as evidenced by the late-’60s and early-’70s records by some of T.A.M.I.’s stars, from Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud to Beggar’s Banquet, What’s Going On, and Surf’s Up. The music’s rapid progression from bubblegum product to countercultural artillery is visible in the short gap—less than three years—between The T.A.M.I. Show and D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop. The relationship between rock music and Vietnam-era youth ideals would be celebrated in that movie, consecrated in Woodstock, eulogized in Gimme Shelter, and gilded in bronze in The Last Waltz, all of which are leagues beyond The T.A.M.I. Show on purely cinematic grounds.

But the relationship itself started with T.A.M.I., or at least with the fleeting cultural moment that the film encapsulates. It’s still thrilling to see this bond, now ossified into nostalgia like last year’s onslaught of Woodstock 40th-anniversary material, in its raw and shrill infancy. The coming changes are hidden in plain view throughout The T.A.M.I. Show, be it in the loving back-and-forth between black and white musicians that anticipates the imminent explosion of civil rights as a national issue and generational touchstone, or in Brian Jones’s noticeably stoned glare, a portent of recreational changes to come. Knowing what we know now, the shrieking T.A.M.I. audience almost seems to be marching naïvely into a storm that only we can see, and those very shrieks belie a crucial truth: They didn’t discover free love once they got there—it was the sudden and music-enabled possibility of free love that compelled them to march in the first place.

The T.A.M.I. Show: Collector’s Edition reaches stores on March 23 courtesy of Shout! Factory. To purchase click here.