Based on a true story from the annals of American soul, Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo’s Make It Soul takes on a difficult task. The film’s central moment hinges on capturing the vitality of James Brown’s stage show in the mid-1960s — and if you’ve ever watched clips of Brown from that era, you’ll know just how impossible that seems. As a choreographer and filmmaker whose animation is intimately tied to music, Mbotti Malolo could definitely capture the moves. But how do you capture the spirit?

One way is with the utterly inspired decision to capture the moment in felt marker. The first half of Make It Soul constrains the marker to the background, lending an impressionist touch to the Chicago neighbourhood that sets the stage for the short — but once characters come into focus, they’re rendered in crisp, digital lines. It’s a smart way of introducing the aesthetic, but it still hardly prepares you for the moment Brown’s performance starts.

As soon as the music kicks in, Brown and stage around him burst into bright, thick blocks of overlapping colour. The swirling camera only adds to the technical mastery, but it’s the colouring that really emphasizes the raw energy of the moment. It’s as if reality isn’t able to contain the sheer electricity of Brown’s stage show, and so every line swells and oversaturates, flowing forth in a tidal wave of pure, unbridled soul.

There are so many other reasons to praise Make It Soul, from the humour to the music (obviously) to Lee Fields’ spot-on James Brown impersonation. But it’s the two-minute sequence from about 7:40-9:30 that elevates it from a great bit of storytelling to an instant classic.

Make It Soul

dir: Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo
syn: Chicago, winter 1965.
The Regal Theater hosts James Brown and Solomon Burke, two monuments of Soul music.
Backstage, everyone’s under pressure.
But in 1960s America, both men know their music has unexpected powers.

Bonus: We’ve shared it before, and it’s worth sharing again, the Tonkocast’s interview with Mbotti Malolo on the making of Make It Soul.

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