The new Samuel L. Jackson/Bernie Mac buddy flick Soul Men has copious Memphis connections. Partly set and partly shot in the city, the movie boasts material filmed at the Peabody, on Beale Street, on South Main, and in front of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Local soul revivalists the Bo-Keys (whose bandleader Scott Bomar did prominent work on the film's soundtrack) serve as the back-up band in one performance scene, while drummer Willie Hall, guitarist Skip Pitts, and horn player Ben Cauley (all former Stax players) have small speaking roles. In addition, the late Isaac Hayes appears in multiple scenes as himself.
All that alone may be enough to interest Memphis filmgoers, but, sadly, that's about all Soul Men has going for it. The film has two engaging lead actors and a decent premise: Jackson and Mac are Louis and Floyd, aging members of a fictional '60s-era soul band the Real Deal (cannibalizing actual soul-duo classics such as Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and Bobby and James Purify's "I'm Your Puppet" for material) who reunite to play a tribute concert for the group's recently deceased lead singer (played by current soul star John Legend). But director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Undercover Brother) fashions this promising raw material into a cheap, unnecessarily coarse movie that does a disservice to the grit and grace of the music that inspired it.
More than earning its R rating, Soul Men is drenched in crude humor that is ostensibly a realistic nod to the earthy realities of being an R&B star but in truth comes across more like a surrender to present-day gross-out comedy convention. (The film's mild homophobia and even milder music-biz anti-Semitism are probably more in character.)
Armed with a loaded revolver and plenty of plot-catalyst coincidences, Louis and Floyd embark on a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New York in a spiffy convertible Cadillac El Dorado (dubbed the "Muthaship"), stopping along the way to hone their act in preparation for a return at the Apollo. There's a desultory debut at a Flagstaff motel, a raucous, Blues Brothers-referencing triumph at an Amarillo honky-tonk, and a side trip to Tulsa (?!) where Louis and Floyd happen upon a hapless rap trio sampling one of their records in a scene that would be far more satisfying if the rappers weren't painted quite so broadly.
Grace notes here are distressingly few, but co-star Sharon Leal playing Carla Thomas' "Comfort Me" on the piano while the elder Jackson peers, unseen and deeply moved, from behind a hallway door, is one of them.
Mac and, especially, Hayes, who passed away on back-to-back days between production and release of the film, both deserved better as a final on-screen testament. In fact, the best part of Soul Men is the behind-the-scenes outtakes of Mac shown on the closing credits.