When we remember and talk about films, the focus is usually on what
actually happened on the screen. In this case, the off-screen subtext is
actually more important. One of the stars and a supporting player died
during this film. The star was a likeable and talented comic, Bernie Mac,
and the bit player in this movie was no bit player in life, but a giant of
soul music as a producer, performer, composer, arranger, and even as a
starring actor in blaxploitation films. Tha's right, I'm talkin' 'bout Eye-zak
"Chef" Hayes himself.
Their deaths change the film substantially. It probably shouldn't be that
way. During Soul Men's feel-good ending, we should probably be thinking
about the characters and the catharsis produced by wrapping up their
stories, but we aren't. The closing credits are running over Isaac's mellow
voice. His song is saying the words "Never Can Say Goodbye," but we realize
that he is doing exactly that, and the film's emotional resonance deepens.
The silly comedy suddenly seems like a memento mori. Bernie Mac then
appears in outtakes and "behind the scenes" footage, and we are made even
more aware of the swiftness of time's winged chariot.
The fourteenth century Latin couplet cited above means:
Life is short, and shortly it will end;
Death comes quickly and respects no one
Ain't that the truth.
Man, those 14th century monks were some cheerful-ass guys, were they not?
If there had been movies back then, they would have been screenwriters for
Back to the point.
The film is about two back-up soul singers who are asked to perform a
farewell tribute to their recently deceased frontman. The group split up
three decades earlier. The lead singer went on to become a soul legend, but
the back-ups soon left the business. They tried to form their own act, but
it wasn't viable. Let's face it, nobody buys a Pips album without Gladys
Knight. Their friendship soon followed the same direction as their careers -
they were both in love with the same woman.
After all the years, the Pips still don't get along, and the two men are
as different as can be. One became a successful entrepreneur who is now
living in the splendor and ennui of a gated golf course community. The other
turned into a bad-ass criminal who is now an ex-con struggling in menial
jobs, living in squalor. The two men grudgingly agree to work together for
the farewell at New York's Apollo Theater, but they live in California and
one of them refuses to fly, so they have to spend several days together
during a car ride. Along the way they encounter the daughter of the woman
they once fought over. They realize that she may or may not be the daughter
of one of them.
Before the poignant ending, which would not have been so damned poignant
if everyone in the cast could have stayed alive for a few more months, the
film can be summed up in one short list of attributes: good music, funny
dialogue, solid performances, tired plot. As for that plot thing - child,
don't you pay that no never mind. It's well worth the watch if you like the
music of the early Motown and pre-rock eras, and/or if you enjoy Bernie Mac
and Samuel L. Jackson, who are both great in the film. You would expect
those two guys to handle comedy and some light drama with ease, and they do.
The pleasant surprise is that they are also convincing as a couple of guys
who once made a living singing, dancing and charming audiences.
Soul Men has a few cringe-worthy moments and a predictable plot, but that
just doesn't matter while you watch it. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and
watched several scenes a second time. All of which goes to show that you can
make a good entertainment film with just about any plot - just as long as
you don't lose sight of what makes it entertaining. Let the musicians play.
Let the comedians joke. Give Samuel L. a chance to bluster in righteous and
You done got yourself a pretty decent movie.