Starring: Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac with appearances by John Legend and Isaac Hayes. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. 1 hr., 43 min. Rated R.
The enjoyment you derive from Soul Men – the new comedy from Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man) – may be in direct proportion to your love for ’60s-early’70s soul music, most particularly the Stax/Volt sound out of Memphis. Which is my way of saying: This may not be a great movie, but I still couldn’t help falling in love with it.
The screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (not the South Park guy) is basically a riff on Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (which had its own precursors), except with late-middle-aged black singers instead of ancient Jewish vaudevillians. The opening sequence has the highest concentration of laughs: It’s a faux VH1 Behind the Scenes segment, tracing the history of soul trio the Real Deal (Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, John Legend), with the coifs and costumes lovingly re-creating the transformation of styles from the mid-’60s through the ’70s (first Afros and polyester thin lapels, then psychedelia a la Bootsy Collins and George Clinton).
The group (we are told) broke up when lead singer Marcus (Legend) embarked on a successful solo career and the other two members had a falling out. Louis (Jackson) became the world’s most inept bank robber and ended up in the slammer. Floyd (Mac) made a bundle in the car wash business.
When Marcus dies, Louis and Floyd are invited to sing at the funeral. Floyd jumps at the chance. The problem is that he has to convince Louis to come along, even though the two men haven’t spoken in more than 20 years.
Louis is working a crummy job , so Floyd entices him with a greater-than-50 percent cut of their payday for the gig. Conveniently for the plot, Floyd refuses to fly, which means that the two “enemies” have to drive from Los Angeles to New York in four days. Early in the trip, they pick up two more passengers – Phillip (Adam Herschman), a dorky gofer from the agency putting together the show, and Cleo (Sharon Leal), the daughter of the woman at the center of Louis and Floyd’s falling out. Cleo, of course, is exactly the right age to possibly be the daughter of one of the duo.
Floyd has improbably managed, on no notice, to book one-night stands at cheap venues at each evening’s stop along the way, allegedly so that the two can get their rusty chops in shape but, in actuality, so that the filmmakers can work in several musical numbers.
Louis and Floyd’s career may suggest a number of real-life figures, but it’s overwhelmingly based on the history – or at least the rumors and legend – of the tragic dissolution of Sam & Dave.
The real Dave died before he and Sam could ever settle their differences, assuming that would have been possible. When I saw them once – in their heyday, circa 1967/68 – my seats were fairly close to the stage. They both looked grim and hostile as they entered and went up the stairs, but the moment they hit the stage and were in the spotlight, they were all smiles and camaraderie, singing about their eternal bond.
Soul Men is built around the chemistry between Jackson and Mac, who (we are told) were longtime friends. (Mac died at the age of 50, a few months after the film was shot; Isaac Hayes, who appears briefly as himself, died the following day.
Jackson and Mac do their own singing, and, well, they don’t stray too far from the notes. Jackson fares the better of the two, in part because his voice projects so powerfully (as is evident in his pseudo-biblical spiel in Pulp Fiction); it’s one of the reasons he’s come to own the word motherfucker. But as soon as they share the stage with Leal, a real singer, they are revealed as little more than shower-stall competent. (The sound mix and the excellent backup players help mask their deficiencies.)
The music includes a few old hits (Hayes’ version of “Never Can Say Goodbye”), lots of remakes of old hits (“I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Your Thing”) and remakes of old obscurities like “Water” and “Boogie Ain’t Nothing (But Gettin’ Down).”
There is one terrific new (or sort of new) song, “Walk in the Park”; I say “sort of” because it leans heavily enough on samples (or rescorings) from “People Got to Be Free” that members of the Rascals get co-writing credit. Inexplicably, this song is absent from the soundtrack album, but it can currently be downloaded for free from the film’s Web site.
Most of the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really spoil the fun. Between the terrific music and the interplay of the stars, Soul Men goes down easily, if unremarkably.
E-mail Andy Klein at email@example.com.