Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Black Moses of Soul (1973)

          Setting aside the question of whether the world truly needed a full-length concert movie from Isaac Hayes, The Black Moses of Soul makes for pleasant viewing. The movie is all surface, especially because Hayes never takes off his signature dark glasses, and it’s peculiar that the movie doesn’t feature his biggest hit, the Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” even though songs that Hayes recorded after “Theme from Shaft” are included. As for the movie’s visual approach, minimalism is the order of the day, because director Chuck Johnson employs limited camera angles and, very occasionally, trippy solarized superimpositions. For most of the movie’s running time, the screen is occupied solely by Hayes, either in close-up accentuating his bald head and thick beard or in wider shots showcasing his unique costume of a vest made from gold chains. Johnson periodically cuts to Hayes’ funky band or to his trio of female backup singers. But in keeping with the religiosity of the film’s title, the focus is on Hayes’ preacher-like stage persona. Whether he’s maneuvering through a song with his arrestingly deep voice or sliding his way through an extended spoken-word bit, Hayes plays the role of a soul-music messiah bringing messages of love (both carnal and spiritual) to his adoring flock.
          Many of the tunes are pop songs that Hayes famously repurposed on his best-selling albums as sexualized slow jams. “The Look of Love” becomes an epic meditation on romantic connection, and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” transforms into a sort of R&B concerto, with horns and Hayes’ crackling organ sounds mixing into something potent and sensual and wild. Hayes and his supporting players are at their best during instrumental passages, because even though Hayes’ singing has a certain charisma, he’s superlative as an arranger, bandleader, and player, finding grooves within grooves and sounds within sounds. He’s also, to be frank, a somewhat comical figure whenever he buys into his own mythology. Routines at the beginning and end of the movie involving Hayes wearing a cape borrow shamelessly from James Brown’s stage shtick, and Hayes loses himself in the wilds of hep-cat verbiage during the long rap session about infidelity that precedes “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Try to avoid chuckling as Hayes describes himself “sweating profuciously.”

The Black Moses of Soul: FUNKY

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