By Genevieve Long
In a new comedy due out this weekend, moviegoers will get a chance to see Bernie Mac for the first time on the silver screen following his untimely death, as well as a comedy with heart. Mac passed away from complications from pneumonia on Aug. 9.
The movie Soul Men tells the story of two former backup soul singers, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) who haven’t spoken in 20 years.
After their former group’s lead singer (John Legend) dies, they are called on to do a tribute performance at the Apollo Theater in New York. Since Jackson’s character hates to fly, a cross-country road trip from California ensues. Along the way to their final destination, the two men discover that their friendship is stronger than an old grudge that has festered between the for two decades. They are eventually joined by a third singer, Cleo (Sharon Leal), who seems to be Floyd’s daughter.
Producer Charles Castaldi, who also worked with the movie’s director Malcolm Lee on “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins,” recently sat down to share his insights on the film. He says they initially only wanted the project if Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac were available, who the movie seemed to be tailor-made for.
“It was amazing,” said Castaldi of working with Mac and Jackson. “Having the two of them around and seeing them riff with each other, we thought, ‘Wow, if we can get this chemistry on the screen, it’s going to be great.’” After the movie’s New York premiere earlier this month, he thinks they accomplished just that.
Castaldi describes Mac as a low-key, personable family man who had not let fame go to his head. He liked to be with his family and play golf, and lacked the trappings of the typical Hollywood star.
“To see Bernie at work is just incredible, because the guy is just a natural,” said Castaldi. “Each time he did a take he’d have a different curveball to throw at us, and one was funnier than the next.” In fact, a lot of what Mac does in the movie is what he came up with himself, something that Castaldi says was a result of his professional background.
“He just has that incredible ability because of his experience in standup to just get up there and try different things, and it was just a joy to watch him work,” said Castaldi. “Bernie is coming from the comedy side of things and from standup, he’s just riffing even when the camera is not on.”
Aside from comedy, there is also an artistic element to the movie—all of the singing and dancing is done by the actors—a fact Castaldi says initially made him and director Malcolm Lee nervous. But their fears were unfounded.
“The first time we went into the recording studio we thought, ‘They really can sing.’ It turns out also that they can dance,” said Castaldi. “We were off the hook.”
The contrast between Jackson and Mac in their approach was a combination that worked in the end, although Mac was more off-the-cuff than Jackson, who has been described as a method actor.
The movie’s director put together a tribute to both actors at the end of the movie, including outtakes of a “very x-rated standup routine” by Mac, who did an impromptu standup routine for 1,000 extras when the cameras weren’t rolling for the film. Castaldi says the comedian had the extras, “In stitches, it was hilarious.”
“He just can’t help but entertain an audience—that’s what he felt he was born to do,” said Castaldi of the man and his many routines throughout the filming of the movie. He’s confident that if the comedian were still alive, he’d be satisfied with the project.
“I know if he had to go out on something, he wanted it to be something good, and I think we did [something good],” says Castaldi.
The Hair Meeting
One of the funnier behind-the-scenes moments while shooting the movie came during the “hair meeting.” The film opens with a montage of performances from different eras of the fictitious band the story is centered around—Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. The montage includes soul music, clothes, and hairstyles from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, which required a special meeting.
“We had this incredibly long hair meeting to try to decide how big the afros should be, how small Sam’s cornrows should be,” recalls Castaldi laughingly. “Bernie and Sam [were] just constantly chattering with each other and just cracking us up. You got the two of them in the room together and they were just hilarious.”
The meeting, scheduled for three hours, ended up taking almost an entire day. The actors had to adapt to the different eras not just in their costumes, but in their personas, a feat Mac accomplished with ease. But the colorful nature of the movie is not necessarily for the family crowd, though.
“Bernie was known for pushing the comedic envelope and doing things that were not exactly PG, if you will—or PC,” said Castaldi. “That’s very much what this movie is about.”
The R-rated nature of the movie was in great part because it suited the actors and the characters they were depicting to make the story ring true.
“It’s musicians on the road, these aren’t choir boys on the road,” said Castaldi.
Jackson and Mac had wanted to find something to work on together, but had never found the right project. “Soul Men” was the just what they had been looking for.
Isaac Hayes and the Apollo Theater
Isaac Hayes, who also appears in the movie, passed away one day after Bernie Mac this past August. The famed soul singer introduces the fictitious group at the end of the movie. Hayes’s role blends well the movie’s soundtrack, modeled after the sound of Stacks Records, where he did much of his early recording. The Stacks sound is the musical heart of the movie. His role also lends an air of reality to the finale performance at the Apollo Theater.
“We blur the lines between fiction and reality,” says Castaldi of Hayes’s role introducing the band at the end of the movie.
Much of the movie was shot on location, from California to the Midwest, the East Coast, Memphis, Shreveport, and other locales. The travels of the cast lend the feel of a real road trip to the final product.
With the last stop at the Apollo Theater in New York, the line between fiction and reality blurs again. While filming, a marquee sign set up at the Apollo stating “Marcus Hooks and The Real Deal” confused some passerby on Harlem’s 125th Street, who stopped and tried to figure out if they knew the singer and band.
Castaldi admits that many people may go to see the movie out of an interest in seeing Bernie Mac’s last work and to say their goodbyes. But in the end, he’s confident that audiences will enjoy the story.
“Once they’re in the movie theater and the lights go down and the movie starts playing, they’ll have a good time,” says Castaldi.