The T.A.M.I. Show, as it is available to us now, does not document a concert as much as a variety of aesthetic experience. It is imaginatively informative rather than didactic. The film does not tell us anything we haven’t already heard a thousand times before in lesser films, but makes us understand something that seemed to have been encrusted in cliché and received wisdom for too long to really believe.
The event referred to in the film’s title — The Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International, depending on when you ask — was actually two concerts held on different nights in Santa Monica, the audience recruited from local high schools. A major impetus behind the movie’s financing, according to director Steve Binder, was the promotion of Electronovision, the primitive video format used to capture the musical performances. With this new technology, Binder arguably invented the concert film, which has remained a major subcategory of documentary in the 45 years since the movie’s release. While many of the film’s formal maneuvers have become genre staples, the set-up is far more presentational than in the kinds of movies it inspired. Binder had directed episodes of the Steve Allen Show, and The T.A.M.I. Show bears a greater resemblance to a variety hour than a rock movie. The concert was staged for the cameras, and the film makes no attempt to mask that fact. Binder serves as a showman instead of a documentarian.
We are removed a further layer from the document’s indexical object by The T.A.M.I. Show’s almost nonexistent distribution and the poor quality of the few circulating copies. The available prints, if the one screened on Saturday at Union Docs offers any indication, are blown out and faded — the stage swathed in a hazy, film blanc curtain– and their optical soundtracks distorted and thin. Instruments and vocals drop in and out of audible range, the audience’s screaming is taken to an almost parodic pitch that continuously overwhelms whatever is left of the music. Setting aside the film’s shaky mimetic capacity, we see and hear too little for the film to be a reliable document of what the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium even looked like.
The film’s best performers do nothing to ground us in a comfortable reality. Leslie Gore fixes her eyes upwards as though in ecstasy, but maintains a professionally warm smile. The Beach Boys sound as precise as ever, but they somehow also manage to be a little sexier and less constrained than usual, thanks largely to Dennis Wilson’s propulsive, nearly wild drumming . And of course there’s James Brown and the Furious Flames, whose performances of “Night Train” and “Please, Please, Please” are the film’s most frequently seen. As Jamie Hook suggested in his introduction to the movie on Saturday, Brown almost maps out the future history of American popular music here, making it feel like every subsequent innovation could be found among the seemingly infinite number dance moves or vocal inflections here. There’s little one can say about it without sounding hyperbolic and fake. Or conservative: the beauty of James Brown’s act feels self-evident, literally awe-inspiring.
The newness and lightness of the video cameras make for unconventional framings — too-close close-ups, singers barely wedged in the lower corners of the image, crane movements abandoned halfway. The shots are striking, but untethered to what they depict. We see Gerry and the Pacemakers from every possible angle but James Brown is kept in undynamic wide shot for much of his performance. We feel the cinematographer’s uncertainty. The movie renders itself unreliable as an authority.
It’s precisely this unreliability, this lack of mastery, that allows The T.A.M.I. Show to re-stage some of the boundary-dissolving, utopian feeling that pop music inspired in the early 1960s. The apparent artificiality of both the concert and its representation opens a gap between performer and audience that our contemporary facility with the pop idiom had closed. The film invests it’s own strangeness and mystery in this music, allowing us to experience it afresh.