When I think of losing Isaac Hayes, you're talking about a guy whose contribution to music was influential, but Bernie Mac's death was what I took harder. He was a decent man, married for over 30 years, and took in his sister's children and raised them while she fought drug addiction. He wanted to be a comedian and entertain people, to the point where he would perform his act to commuters riding the train in his Chicago hometown. His performances on "The Original Kings of Comedy" tour in arenas across the country in the mid-'90s brought his comedy to a new level of visibility, and his material was Pryor-esque in its subject matter. Bernie wasn't afraid to speak common sense truths about how he lived life. Those truths (and Mac's life) were the center of a long-running show on network television. We lost one of the better guys in 2008.
Fortunately, Mac was working on several projects, and Soul Men was his last completed film. Written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (Intolerable Cruelty) and directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Roll Bounce), Mac plays Floyd Henderson, one third of the soul act The Real Deal. Floyd is backup singer along with Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson, Lakeview Terrace), and the two stay in the shadows for frontman Marcus Hooks. After years together, Marcus set out on his own and had a successful solo career while Floyd and Louis went their separate ways. Floyd took up various business enterprises, while Louis spent time in jail and now works in a auto repair shop. When Marcus dies, the opportunity for the Real Deal to unite is presented, a suggestion Louis bristles at because of some raw feelings toward Floyd. When the offer of money is presented, Louis accepts, and he and Floyd travel across the country to play at New York's famed Apollo. Along the way, their coldness towards each other begins to thaw out.
On a high level, this is a road movie with guys who used to be friends but are forced to spend time together. It lacks a certain originality, and God knows it's not all that uniquely told here either. But it's the ability of the film's stars to lift a little above the material which makes it fun. Mac's performance that draws you into the film. It's a little bit goofy and slapstick, yet it's the one that comes closest to his stand-up identity. On stage, Mac cursed, spoke about sexual situations, provided comic inflection to his stories and jokes, and it's all here for the world to see one last time in Floyd. The chemistry that he shares with Jackson is quite surprising as well, full of laughs, but also the occasional poignant moment. One sequence has the pair dancing to one of their songs on the radio at the side of the road. Floyd might have a new hip, but he and Louis connect on a rather sweet level, resurrecting their feelings as musicians once again. Soul Men does have some of its moments.
That said, its limitations are too hard to forget about. A scene at a country western bar is nice, but the following scene when Floyd and Louis pick up some admiring fans is on the trifling side. Louis and Floyd's friendship gets more defined when they go to the house of Floyd's ex-wife, and meet her daughter (played by Sharon Leal), who might be Floyd's. She has to battle her own things at home, namely an abusive boyfriend, and Louis addresses the boyfriend situation effectively. The problem is that the daughter seems to be willing to go on the road with these two a little too easily. While Leal is decent, the role itself is something anyone could have done. Adam Herschman (Accepted) appears as the "manager" and is a breath of fresh air, but his scenes are few and far between. The laughs the film provides are cute but hardly memorable. What deserves to be remembered is Mac and Hayes, both of whom died before the film was released. Their appearances here remind us that the good are taken away from us unfairly and without reason, even in the movies.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 2.35:1 widescreen presentation of Soul Men looks better than other Genius/Weinstein Blu-ray discs that I've seen recently. It uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec for the disc, and the blacks are deep both in the interior sequences like in Louis' apartment, but also in the Memphis sky. Fleshtones are reproduced to excellent detail (I could spot the gray hairs on Mac's chin), and the fabrics the pair wore during their concerts all look vibrant without oversaturation. The blue suits on the first concert stand out nicely, and moving onto the brighter metallic colors, things are maintained just as well. When the two are out in the desert (and not being shot on projection screens), the scenery looks good there and the background detail isn't too shabby either. Not only there, but in Floyd's hotel room, the pattern of the blanket was easily discernible. Nice results all the way around.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack presents a mix of Stanley Clarke's score and songs that helped make the Memphis Stax sound so memorable. The music sounds clear and has solid dynamics, and is well-balanced for the viewer to make for nice ambient experiences. I was kind of surprised that the subwoofer stayed dormat for those sequences too, but I wasn't complaining. Dialogue rarely wavers and requires little compensation by the user, and the sound track does have occasional panning during the Tulsa scenes. All in all this is a nice sounding disc that does the music and the events in the film some justice. Oh, Mac and Jackson handle their vocals for the film, and they can carry a tune surprisingly well.
Lee, Ramsey and Stone join up for a commentary that alternates between fun and slightly informative. Lee recalls meeting with the cast early on, and how he came to the story (Ramsey and Stone share their inspirations for writing it). Lee also remembers some of the scene-specific details and how the cast was involved in them. Ramsey and Stone discuss how they managed to do rewrites for the film while the Writers' Strike occurred, and one of the writers (Stone?) talked about how he sat in front of Mac's widow while the end credit tribute film was rolling. Lee covers how some of the Stax musicians were included in the film, including Ben Cauley, who was the lone survivor in the 1967 plane crash which killed Otis Redding. It's a decent track worth listening to.
From there, the remaining material is a little bland. "The Soul Men" (9:30) focuses on Jackson and Mac, as the pair talk about their friendship, which has been ongoing for years. They share their personal attraction to the material (Lee does the same thing as well), and how they approached the task of doing the singing and dancing the film demanded. "The Cast of Soul Men" (7:42) looks at the supporting cast in a little more detail and what Jackson and Mac thought of their work on set, and it's here that singer John Legend (who appears as Marcus) gets a chance to be interviewed. "Director Malcolm D. Lee" (2:50) is a quick look at how the director works on set, while "A Tribute to Bernie Mac" (7:26) has the cast and crew's reflecting on their co-star. Some interview footage of Mac is here too, but this piece serves as a longer tribute that the end credits didn't have time for. "A Tribute to Isaac Hayes" (4:03) is in the same mold, but it's nice to see that there's a separate tribute here with the cast and crew talking about Hayes' musical impact on the world. "Boogie Ain't Nuthin" (2:31) is a very quick behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, while "Bernie Mac at The Apollo" (4:17) is Mac doing some stand-up for extras on the Apollo set in between shots. It's an intimate look at the laughs he was willing to give the world. The trailer (2:25) rounds things out.
Bernie Mac gave us The Original Kings of Comedy while Isaac Hayes gave us "Hot Buttered Soul." Neither one of them will be remembered for Soul Men, but Mac and Jackson combine to perform in a well-meaning comedy that serves as an admirable swan song for Mac and Hayes. It looks and sounds decent, and the extras help remind you of what we've lost. Give it a rental if you're looking for some quick and easy laughs.