In the days before rock & roll had fully evolved into rock, and, in the process, possessed serious documentarists like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers to turn their lenses on various bands and events, movies like this and its predecessor, The T.A.M.I. Show, were about the best that one could hope for in the way of live rock & roll events on film. With Larry Peerce directing and Phil Spector helping to pull some of the talent together and provide the services of the Ronettes, among others, this movie is fairly impressive in terms of the array of talent and what's done with it, once you get past the silly David McCallum Jr. opening and his introductions of the various acts. By the time this movie was made in 1966, rock & roll had taken on pop and folk influneces, and the result is less bracing than the combination of the soulful sounds in 1965's The T.A.M.I. Show, a mix of soul, folk-rock, and pop/rock that never quite coheres in this movie. Petula Clark tries hard in her first set but slows everything to a crawl, coming on as she does after Ray Charles (who could carry a 90-minute concert movie by himself). The kids onscreen clap along listlessly to her hit "Downtown," which is a better record than a vehicle for performance on-stage.
The Lovin' Spoonful fare better after a comical flub in their opening song, and it is interesting to hear them adapt their sound to the stage. Zal Yanovsky's fuzztone guitar carries the first break on "Do You Believe in Magic," then comes Bo Diddley, backed up by a band that includes the Duchess undulating on guitar, doing "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Bo Diddley" and generally bringing the house down and, in fact, flattening every piece of landscape within sight. If the original movie had a problem, it was putting Bo Diddley in too early; he was still at the top of his game in 1966, and after him an earthquake would have been anti-climactic. Joan Baez sings her heart out on Hedy West's "500 Miles" and Phil Ochs' "There but for Fortune," but sandwiching her in between Bo Diddley and the second part of Ray Charles' set is an act of cruelty to her. And the attempt by Phil Spector in this movie to recast Baez as a blue-eyed soul singer doing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" (with Spector at the piano) is one of the most bizarre public moments in the singer's career, and one that there's probably a story behind. And the Ronettes who follow do extraordinarily well on "Be My Baby" and "Shout". One of the interesting problems with The Big T.N.T. Show, is, in fact, that it has at least four big "finishes" in it good enough to end the movie.
Roger Miller, who comes off as a consummate entertainer here, fares rather better with his country-pop sound than does Donovan's earnest folk repertory. Surrounded by those soul acts, the Scottish folkie seems every bit as boring here as he is made out to be in discussions in Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back. The Byrds also show their limitations as stage performers -- Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn come off well enough as singers, and McGuinn and Chris Hillman likewise as instrumentalists, but otherwise, the group shows amazingly little charisma or excitement, performing "Turn! Turn! Turn!" almost identically to their studio rendition. Some girls in the audience are seen freaking out over them, but others just seem bored. "The Bells of Rhymney," a great but very grim and serious song, just goes right over the heads of most of the crowd, and the band only fully get them back on "Mr. Tambourine Man"." Petula Clark's second set comes off well with "You're the One That I Love" and "My Love." Her ability to hold a crowd greatly exceeds that of McGuinn and company. After that short set, Donovan's eclectic acoustic folk set is too much of a change of pace -- he belongs in another concert movie, booked at a different concert. Luckily, they follow him with Ike & Tina Turner, who proceed to blast the entire concert hall flat. Otherwise, the highlight for sharp-eyed viewers may be spotting Richard Marsh (aka Sky Saxon), future leader of the band the Seeds, sitting in the audience. The picture is a '60s pop-culture maven's dream -- but nowhere near as musically revelatory as the list of talent would lead one to expect.