James Brown and the Famous Flames
James Brown with the Rolling Stones at the TAMI show, 1964
GET ON UP C+
USA (138 mi) 2014 d: Tate Taylor Official site
USA (138 mi) 2014 d: Tate Taylor Official site
Like most Hollywood biopic tales, this one barely scratches the surface and tells us little about the man that we don’t already know, where you’d think with Mick Jagger as a producer that the film would at least offer proof positive as to how he changed or altered the music industry, but except for an early run-in with Little Richard, a man Brown idolized, few other musical acts are even mentioned. Making matters worse, despite a heartfelt performance by Chadwick Boseman, seen earlier in the Jackie Robinson story 42 (2013), the music is entirely lip-synched, which certainly takes the starch out of any live performance, though every note he sings in the film is sung by James Brown. Having seen Brown perform in documentaries on soul music or the decade of the 60’s, none of which is included in the film, Boseman is a pale substitute, especially with the camera continually cutting away after a few seconds, never capturing any extended dance moves, lacking the quickness, stamina, and dexterity of the man who largely invented break dancing, possessing astounding acrobatic agility, where the man knew how to use the microphone to great effect, often kicking it with his feet where it bounced right back into his hands, while building theatrical tension near the end of his performance of James Brown performs "Please Please Please ... - YouTube (6:15), usually his closing number, as they keep pulling him away from the microphone, throwing a cape over him, and leading him away, only to have him resurrect himself in a surge of energy that was repeated several times for dramatic effect, as the audience was simply enthralled by his showmanship. White audiences may have preferred Elvis, even as a Vegas act, calling him the King, but James Brown was likely the most electrifying performer on the musical stage that we’ve ever seen, the man all others aspire to be. That legendary quality simply doesn’t come across here, where unfortunately Chadwick Boseman isn’t in the same league as imitators Prince or Michael Jackson (interestingly joining Brown onstage Michael Jackson & James Brown (High Quality) YouTube, 3:33), who stole nearly all their onstage moves from James Brown (as did MC Hammer, Usher, Bruno Mars, Chris Brown, and even Janelle Monae), acquiring the undisputed title of the Godfather of Soul. While others had a similar flair for showmanship, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, or the incomparable Tina Turner, but they never had such a powerhouse band behind them, rehearsed to perfection, where the jolt of raw electric energy pulsating from that stage has never been seen before or since, especially accompanied by such fabulous dance moves performed while literally screaming the songs, sweat pouring off his face, earning the reputation for “the hardest working man in show business.”
Born under a backdrop of scarcity from such remote isolation, basically growing up in a rundown shack in the woods with a physically abusive father (Lennie James) who was rarely at home and a terrified mother (Viola Davis) that eventually left to save her skin, Brown experienced dire poverty and stark deprivation as a young boy, where he’s seen as a child getting his first pair of dress shoes by removing them from the feet of a lynched man. As Brown describes in his memoir, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, “Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there, it gave me my own mind. No matter what came my way after that—prison, personal problems, government harassment—I had the ability to fall back on myself.” Young James is played by two boys, Jamarion and Jordan Scott, both of whom are stellar, where eventually he was dropped off by his father to live with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), the Madame of a whorehouse, where he was expected to help bring in the customers. While the film skips around a lot, not really in any coherent fashion, it was written by English brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who also wrote the Tom Cruise alien, sci-fi movie EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014), directed by white director Tate Taylor, who also directed The Help (2011), really missing a major opportunity here, leaving out major chunks of his life, while strangely opening with the worst scene in the film, an embarrassingly bad, cringeworthy, drug-induced, shotgun-toting stage of his life that doesn’t really connect to anything except to suggest by that time in his life he’d lost his mind, most likely due to drugs. The movie tries to probe his inner psyche throughout, where somehow the choice to convey a near psychotic state through hallucinations is probably not the best way to do it, as to many in the audience that opening sequence shows him as just another crazy, gun-carrying “Negro” that we need to be afraid of, as the scene is expressed in such blatant stereotypical terms. While the movie attempts to suggest his physical abuse in childhood led to his own tyrannical abuse of others, including his second wife (Jill Scott) and members of his band, who were rehearsed to death, never given a day off, while ruled over with an iron fist and either fined or fired should they fail to meet his standards of perfection. It’s ironic, then, that the film is perfectly willing to overlook so many of his own personal transgressions, like drug abuse, physical violence, domestic abuse, rape allegations, numerous extramarital children, or legal troubles, quickly skimming over them or omitting them altogether, never really placing them in the context of his life. In a near surreal moment, Brown and his band are heading for an appearance before the American troops when they come under Vietcong fire in a U.S. plane in 1968, where Brown is crazily haranguing the pilot about how he’s not afraid of death, when he then turns to the camera and asks the audience, “You ready?” The film then jumps back into his childhood. This ridiculous device, continually used throughout the film, was similarly used in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a carryover from the Broadway stage. In both instances it just feels silly, where unlike the theater, in film you already have the audience’s undivided attention, and this only detracts from that interest, feeling more like trickery, a gimmick that just doesn’t work.
Brown was a middle-school dropout with no formal musical training (he could not read a chart, much less write one), but he had an intuitive grasp to remember and reproduce any tune or riff he heard, but also to hear the underlying structures of music and make them his own. Like most black artists from the era, his roots are singing gospel music in church, the flamboyant hand-clapping, stomp-and-shout, get-down-on-your-knees and wail style of gospel music that Ray Charles first brought to popular music in 1959 with “What’d I Say” Ray Charles - What'd I Say LIVE YouTube (4:15). Brown is the source of more hits than anyone of any color after Elvis Presley and stands virtually unrivalled as the preeminent pioneer and practitioner of the essential black musical styles of the 60’s and early 70’s—soul and funk—and the progenitor of rap and hip-hop, where the estate of James Brown earns millions each year on royalties from rap samplings. While he screams and howls in nearly every song he ever recorded, there is very little, if anything, in the range of vocal emotion that he cannot express, and the same can be said of his almost perpetual motion onstage. Even in the early years, his daring was unparalleled, as he was determined to be sensational, even if that meant swinging from the rafters, doing flying splits from atop a grand piano (causing his knees to bleed), and even leaping from a theater balcony into the orchestra pit, where his outrageousness was carefully calculated to convey that he was always in control. Despite his lack of education, Brown always exhibited a dogged interest in financial matters, where in 1962 he wanted to make a live record at the Apollo Theater, where King Records producer Syd Nathan (Fred Melamed) opposed the idea, claiming it would never receive radio airplay. So Brown put up his own money to record what went on to become a fixture on the playlist of many R&B radio stations, many playing the entire first half of the album, breaking for a commercial, and returning for the second half. It spent 66 weeks on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, peaking at #2. It remains to this day one of the more electrically charged live recordings available, listed as #25 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Soon afterwards, Brown began a campaign to wrest ownership of the royalty-generating master tapes in the King archives, obtaining a measure of creative and commercial control that no popular musician, black or white, had quite achieved, and for years afterward he kept the tapes in a bag that was with him at all times. At the peak of the Civil Rights struggle in 1968, he released one of his hit songs, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” James Brown - 1968 Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud ... YouTube (5:58) simultaneous to the Tommie Lee Smith and John Carlos Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, becoming embraced as an anthem to the civil rights movement. James Brown wasn’t just unapologetically black, he was the darkest-skinned American performer to ever achieve such stardom. This racial component, so significant in defining the overall importance of this man, is altogether missing from the film. According to Gregory Allen Howard from Portside, July 31, 2014, The Whitewashing of James Brown | Portside:
There are over fifty black iconic biopics and black-themed movies in development in Hollywood, including multiple Richard Pryor projects, five Martin Luther King projects, multiple Marvin Gaye projects, and civil rights projects, and only one or two have an African American writer. Our entire history has been given over to white writers…
Let me tell you who James Brown was, really, not the Wikipedia James Brown.
He was a civil rights icon. Put James in the pantheon of the most impactful black men of the 20th century, and he would not be out of place. How can I make such an assertion? One song: "I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Before that song, if you wanted to start a fight with a man of color, all one had to do was call him black. Up until the mid-sixties, we were trying define ourselves: not colored anymore, now Negro. But black was not something we called ourselves. And along comes this little man and proudly states, "I'm black and I'm proud!" He took the thing that the oppressor used to bludgeon us and made it a weapon of pride for us.
That song caught on like wildfire. One day, our heads were down, the next day, our heads were held high, proud of who we were. We had all these groups, civil rights groups, Muslims, Panthers, but it was JB who gave us our swagger. That song lifted up an entire race! He put us on his back and carried us. Dr. King gave us our rights. JB gave us our dignity. Civil rights icon? You better believe it.
When that song came on the radio, cars stopped in the street. People turned up their radios, came out of their houses, and sang along with it; radio stations put it in a loop and played it for hours. The next day people greeted each other with "Hello, black man!" "My black brother." JB made black beautiful overnight.
While the film is largely a showcase for James Brown’s music, including unending set pieces of Brown in performance from the early 60’s through the late 80’s, it’s also about the people that he pushed out of his life, leading him to become a sad and tragic figure at the end of his life when he’s largely alone. Outside of Brown, the other star of the show is his soft-spoken sideman Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), a man with a moral conscience, whose family took in Brown as a young 17-year old offender with no family of his own and in need of a permanent address to meet the conditions of parole. These two hit it off immediately, where Byrd’s gospel group The Starlighters visited the prison where Brown was serving time for petty theft, becoming his most loyal and devoted friend throughout his life, a backup singer often brought to the front by Brown, grateful to be sure, even awestruck by Brown’s musical genius, but also resentful of what he was forced to put up with in Brown, becoming cognizant of his failings. Together they formed the original group The Famous Flames, seen at a club impressed by none other than Little Richard (Brandon Smith, also excellent), taking the vacated stage during a break and creating a sensation, playing the Chitlin' circuit where Brown was introduced to his longtime manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), becoming the star of the act, eventually introducing Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) as leader of an electrifying horn section that moved in unison as they played — check them out here in the concluding number that comes at the end of a frenzied 18-minute performance on the TAMI show in 1964, James Brown performs and dances to "Night Train" - YouTube (5:01), a song Sonny Liston used to listen to during his boxing workouts. The entire 18-minutes, featuring “Out of Sight” (3:30), “Prisoner of Love” (3:30), “Please, Please, Please” (6:15), and “Night Train” (5:01), may be the best performance footage of Brown and his band currently available on YouTube, James Brown - Full TAMI Show Performance, 1964 - YouTube (18:15). As Brown puts it in his memoir, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, “We did a bunch of songs, nonstop, like always…I don’t think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think they’d ever seen a man move that fast.” Another superb example of Brown in action is here seven years later with Bootsy Collins(!) on bass, James Brown Italy 1971 - YouTube (15:10), performing “Get On Up” (5:30) with sideman Bobby Byrd, “This Is a Man’s World” (4:10), and “Soul Power” (5:30). Brown could captivate audiences anywhere around the world with a daring boldness and ferocity of spirit, a volcanic force that when he played, gyrating asses could not sit still, but had to move. And for those who only heard James Brown shout and holler and never believed he could sing, there are these performances, literally days from one another, James Brown performs "Try Me". Live at the Boston Garden. April 5, 1968. YouTube (2:03), while in one of the first color recordings of Brown, James Brown performs "Try Me". Live at the Apollo Theater, March 1968 YouTube (2:43). “Try Me” is also the bring-down-the-house final song of the film, a ballad that shows what he could do in a slow song with all its nuances, changing the lyrics to fit the moment, sung late in their lives with Bobby Byrd sitting in the crowd, creating a tender message that is all the more poignant for expressing the connectedness and inescapability of the past, not only the shared love, but all that has been lost between these two friends. It’s a heartbreaking moment.