Detroit soul was represented by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes. The first two were touring together in a Motown Records revue; Robinson had been the first artist producer that Berry Gordy had signed to the label. Already a bona fide star, Gaye, a part-time session drummer as well as a singer and composer, would blossom into one of the great talents in soul music on the strength of songs like “What's Going On.” The Supremes—Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard—were in the midst of a remarkable run of three number-one singles. On The T.A.M.I. Show, they performed two of the songs—”Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love”—as well as two numbers from earlier in their career.
Among the rest of the acts Binder grabbed were British Invasion acts Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Lesley Gore (who typified New York’s Brill Building sound), and Chuck Berry who offered a reach back to the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. The icing on the cake was James Brown and His Famous Flames, and the Rolling Stones, who were making their first American tour.
Two days of rehearsal gave Binder and his crew the opportunity to work out camera angles and editing patterns, but when it came to actual filming, Binder had to work “live.” With only one machine recording video, Binder cut among his four cameras on the fly, with no possibility of retakes, and no outtakes, insert shots or other post-production tricks that directors rely on today. This seat-of-the-pants approach led to what Binder calls his favorite shot of his career: an extreme close-up of a vibrant, ecstatic Ross as she sings “Baby Love.”
It also led to some frightening creative decisions, especially with James Brown. “In his case, I had never heard the songs or seen him perform them. And he refused to rehearse. So when he came out, we just had to wing it. I took a huge risk during one number when I kept the camera tight on James's face as he headed offstage. I told the cameraman, ‘I don't care if we're shooting the edge of the stage, the lighting equipment, instrument cases, whatever—you cover the artist.’ ” We take Binder’s approach for granted today, but at the time industry executives warned Sargent that the film—with its long takes, extended close-ups, and occasional glimpses of lighting stands and cameras—was unreleasable.
Of the 12 acts in The T.A.M.I. Show, five were soul or R&B artists. At a time of racial unrest, the filmmakers' choices took real courage, but Binder’s eye for talent was prescient. About her records, Diana Ross wrote, “I didn't know who was buying the music. Even then, although unaware, we were already crossing color lines and breaking racial barriers.” And as James Brown told reporter Steven Rosen, the film was “a masterpiece and the beginning of my career in one way.” Already a legend in soul circles, Brown was having trouble breaking through to white audiences. “I’d been getting that kind of response for a long time, but white people didn't get a chance to see me because they didn't go to the venues I was playing at.”
Sargent and Binder collaborated on the order of the acts, and were responsible for placing The Rolling Stones after Brown on the bill. (Binder recalls, “Brown just smiled and said, 'No one follows me.'“). Brown was a seasoned professional who simply modified his club show for a new audience. The Stones had yet to define themselves for American viewers –they didn’t have a significant radio hit in the U.S. at the time—and were still working out their stage personalities. (They had debuted on “The Ed Sullivan Show” just a few days earlier.) One breathtaking shot from a vantage point behind the musicians captures the hysteria that greeted the group; another follows singer Mick Jagger on a runway out into the audience, later a staple of his act.
Following James Brown forced The Rolling Stones to ramp up their energy level. Guitarist Keith Richards half-jokingly called following Brown the worst decision of the group’s career. Critic Stephen Davis wrote later that the group received support from Marvin Gaye. “Just go out there and do your thing,” Gaye told them. They abandoned their announced set list to concentrate on songs like “It’s All Over Now” that hadn't been released yet. It's a sizzling performance by a band that would endure for decades.
Teens embraced the film, perhaps because it showed their music without condescension. (It was an immediate hit, outgrossing teen-oriented competition like Beach Party.) Lesley Gore was 18 at the time, the Supremes and Mick Jagger 20, and Binder only 23.
After the stunning success of The T.A.M.I. Show, another production house, American International Pictures produced a sequel, The Big T.N.T. Show, without Binder’s involvement. The original production, however, entered a legal limbo phase that took decades to resolve. Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson (father to the three Wilson brothers in the act) demanded that the footage of his band be removed after the initial theatrical run. When Dick Clark obtained television rights, he further edited the material. A condensed version was briefly available on home video, and bootleg versions showed up sporadically, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the entire film became available on a legal DVD release. Today, there is still a palpable thrill to The T.A.M.I. Show, a sense that these now legendary musicians and filmmakers were discovering themselves.