True to its title, “The Original Kings of Comedy” is a consistently hilarious assemblage of highlights from the hit concert tour of the same name by comedians Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac. Shot over two consecutive SRO nights in Charlotte, N.C., last February, pic recalls the best filmed performances of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, et al. In this third docu outing for Spike Lee (and second concert film, following the 1998 HBO presentation of John Leguizamo’s “Freak”), helmer deftly condenses the performances into a lightning-quick, two-hour package. Theatrical release rescues the long-dormant comedy concert genre from cable oblivion; Lee’s name, along with recognition of the tour itself and its four topliners, should attract the attention of urban and suburban moviegoers seeking a respite from the barrage of less-than-thrilling summer action movies and unfunny comedies.
Aided by the fluid cutting of editor Barry Alexander Brown and the funky grooves of music supervisor Alex Steyermark –longtime collaborators both — Lee expertly accomplishes perhaps the most crucial task in any concert film: He conveys a palpable sense of the rousing, communal energy of the live performance itself.
Watching “The Original Kings of Comedy,” you feel as if you’re in the front row of the Charlotte Coliseum and not merely watching a filmed record of a bygone show. Lee’s film is vital and alive, and watching it becomes a richly cinematic experience unto itself.
But Lee also knows where his bread is buttered, and so he primarily concerns himself with the technical exercise of capturing the four performers’ routines in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, letting the comic material and its inspired delivery serve as the main attraction.
As on tour, pic presents each comic’s set uninterrupted, with emcee Harvey’s monologue broken into three parts that serve as intros for the other performers; with the exception of a few fleeting backstage glimpses between the various segments, the film is straight-ahead jokes, with a very high laugh quotient.
Working with such time-tested standup fodder as pop culture, the workplace, child rearing and the aging process, the four Kings set their material ablaze with rapid-fire delivery and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Like Pryor, Murphy and Redd Foxx before them, they are all exceptionally keen on the delicate balance of race relations in America and assured enough onstage to make potentially incendiary statements as a way of satirizing the contemporary climate of political correctness.
Yet one of the film’s greatest pleasures is the enormous diversity of personality and style represented by the featured comic quartet. Moreover, pic allows all four performers to reinvent themselves beyond their familiar television and movie appearances.
Harvey’s role as host is itself a bit of a comic riff on his long-running weekly gig on the “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” television series, while viewers who know him better from his own, self-titled show on the WB may be surprised by the raunchiness and explicit language of his stage routine.
Cedric the Entertainer — who regularly plays Ed Norton to Harvey’s Ralph Kramden on Harvey’s sitcom — more than comes into his own here, with the sweetly funny demeanor and raucous song-and-dance routines that have made him a star of the black comedy club circuit.
Hughley, who also stars in a self-titled, family-friendly sitcom, has by far the most fiery, Pryor-esque demeanor of the four and does some electrifying, spot-on improv with members of the audience.
But the concert’s true showstopper is Bernie Mac (“Life,” “Who’s the Man”). Appearing onscreen last, he extends his motor-mouthed, bug-eyed movie persona into a dizzying string of impeccably timed comic arpeggios worthy of regal pronouncement.
Tech specs are more than adequate as docus go, with Lee’s choice lenser-of-late Malik Sayeed admirably augmenting existing venue lighting to create a consistent look across multiple shooting cameras.