Newly re-released on DVD, the 1979 special James Brown: Body Heat catches "The Godfather of Soul" live in Monterey, with a performance that doesn't quite match the sheer force of his 1960s shows, but comes pretty damn close. Brown's live performances were justifiably legendary, a boiling mix of tight instrumentation, energetic vocals, inimitable dancing, and extraordinary showmanship; many of them thankfully made their way to vinyl, but there's frustratingly few films of the "James Brown Revue." 2008 saw the release of the indispensible I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the '60s, as well as the slightly less impressive Double Dynamite, a collection of two 1980s TV performances (after Brown was rather past his prime). Last year marked, at long last, the release of T.A.M.I. Show, with a show-stopping, name-making Brown set; now we have Body Heat, which catches Brown at what would turn out to be the end of an era.
The disc begins with a rousing performance of "Get Up Offa That Thing," which finds JB in great voice and good spirits. He's moving well too, immediately at home and doing his thing, and the band matches him well--the back-up singers are a little corny, but the horns are on fire. His jacket is already off by the next number, "Body Heat," and Brown gets a little raunchier with his distinctive dance moves.
Throughout the show, the band tends to crash right from one killer number to the next; Brown was never much for stage patter, and there aren't too many surprises in this set list, so they tend to just get on with it. His sassy, soulful rendition of "Try Me" is just a little bluesier than usual, and he's covered in sweat by the end of it, but he proceeds headlong into a blistering performance of "Sex Machine" that is extra funky--and extra long too, clocking in just shy of twenty minutes. His band is on fire here, wailing away with fire and precision while Brown engages in some spirited scat singing, as well as his trademark call-and-response. And no, as Eddie Murphy hilariously noted, you can't understand a word of it; he's almost comically indecipherable.
After that extended groove, the band slows it down for a scorching cover of "Georgia on My Mind," only to bring it back to full speed with a swinging "Please Please Please." Ever the showman, Brown does his famed exit/return bit before launching into the disco-infused "Hindsight," which features his tremendous back-and-forth with the mic stand. He's back out in a new white suit for the toe-tapping "Can't Stand It," before moving into "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." On that penultimate number, his enthusiasm drops noticeably--this may be the one song he's genuinely tired of doing. After a short jam by the band, Brown is out, bringing the hyperactive 60-minute show to a close.
Simply put, the full frame video presentation is just terrible. Shot for television on analog tape, the image is full of the expected issues--chunky resolution lines, frequent comet trails, awful contrast, mushy saturation, and frequent ghosting (rendered all the more present by the speed of Brown's moves). The disc's distributors were presumably doing the best they could with the materials at hand; I'm not sure what, if anything, they could have done to fix it. But it ain't pretty.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation, while far from pristine, is noticeably better. The audio mostly stays in the front channels, but there is some atmospheric separation in the rears (mostly echoes and audience reax). The mix is clean and enjoyable, and vocal clarity is, well, about as good as can be expected at a Brown show. The LFE channel is engaged sparingly but effectively. Overall, a solid mix.
Not a one. This is a no-frills disc; there's not even a menu, just a track list.
As noted, there are certainly some worrisome presentational elements in James Brown: Body Heat, and the photography and direction of the special are no great shakes either; Brown is mostly kept in tight, closed-in mediums that become somewhat claustrophobic. We're a good two or three songs in before we even see the rest of the stage, and never really get a sense of Brown's environment. The audience is all but forgotten by the cameras as well--Brown could really work a crowd, but you'd never know it from this disc. All of those things said, do any of them ultimately matter? Not really. Body Heat is James Brown, in concert, circa 1979. Who am I to complain?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.