It’s just the kind of movie clip YouTube was made for. In the 1965 Frankie Avalon vehicle,“Ski Party,” James Brown and his backing vocal group, the Famous Flames, enter a ski lodge after rescuing a frozen reveler. Resplendent in a white-and-red sweater, tight black slacks, black pointy-toed shoes and a regal pompadour, Brown performs “I Got You (I Feel Good),” giving the lily-white crowd of clapping skiers a taste of the showmanship that had made him a star on the so-called “chitlin circuit” among blacks. Even in a movie as disposable as “Ski Party,” Brown turned a corny scene into genuine entertainment.
In the biopic “Get On Up,” opening Friday, the filmmakers recreate this moment, trying to see it from Brown’s point of view. While he glides through his steps, we see slow-motion shots of the listeners as if they were creatures from another, whiter planet, one Brown is reluctantly visiting in hopes of reaching a wider audience. In that scene, Brown dances off the set. In the new film, he does a split but doesn’t come up, apparently having ripped his pants. The new moment is slightly comic but undercuts Brown’s mastery.
Depicting James Brown on screen has always been a seductive proposition. As one of the greatest stage performers of the 20th century, he has inspired documentarians, playwrights, comedians and other artists who see the outlines of his greatness. But capturing the man inside, and the meaning of his life, is a tricky business.
There was a fluidity to his identity that was reflected in his many stage nicknames: Mr. Dynamite, the hardest working man in show business, Soul Brother No. 1, the Godfather of Soul and the Original Disco Man, as he variously billed himself. All enduring pop stars have the ability to shift with the culture, but Brown’s moves — from staunch integrationist to proto-black nationalist and back, from civil rights role model to wife beater, from disciplined bandleader to drug addict — suggest an inner turmoil that belied his outer confidence. Shortly after his death, I helped edit a collection of articles that spanned Brown’s long career, and in reading the pieces was struck by how many journalists saw the contours of the man but struggled to truly penetrate his psyche. With a feature film about to arrive and a coming documentary, it’s time to take stock of this imposing figure.
Brown, who died on Christmas Day 2006, began his career in the ’50s under the spell of Little Richard and ended it as a major influence on current singer-dancers like Usher and Chris Brown. Michael Jackson and Prince, of course, were acolytes. Reared on gospel, blues and jazz, Brown was a dominant force in the soul ’60s, created funk, inspired disco and laid hip-hop’s foundation with his beats.
As important as Brown was on vinyl, his stage show and personality are legendary: Tilting a mike stand far forward and, before it hit the stage, pulling it back via the cord. Dropping into and rising out of splits. Feigning exhaustion and donning a regal cape before returning to sing again. Executing every new dance from the ’60s to the ’80s with deft steps and body control made Brown a dominant figure during an explosive era for pop music.
Brown was a self-made man who as a child was abandoned by both his parents. So, with success, he constructed his own world in which few could address him by his first name (for employees and interviewers alike it was strictly Mr. Brown), and musicians were fined midshow. An immense ego strove to mask any insecurity. His drive to succeed was as unrelenting as his dancing. During the civil rights movement, he emerged as a leader capable of preventing a riot in Boston after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But he was also an eccentric, who would gave up his processed hair for an Afro during the “Black Is Beautiful” era, only to return to the retro style because he loved having straight hair.
“Get On Up,” directed by Tate Taylor from a clever screenplay by the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, attempts the difficult task of capturing a driven artist whose career spanned six decades and whose public persona overshadowed his inner life. Just as hip-hop would take break beats from the middle or end of Brown’s records to make new sounds, the Butterworths eschew a linear structure, jumping from 1988 to 1968 to 1938 and so on to put you at important turning points in Brown’s life.
The producer Brian Grazer, a Brown fan since his teenage years, first got rights to the star’s story 13 years ago, he said. At one point, Spike Lee was to direct, with Wesley Snipes to star. When Brown died, “it made making the film impossible,” Mr. Grazer added. “All the relationships we’d cultivated dissipated.” Struggles over the estate made Mr. Grazer and company step away.
“Then about a year after his death, Mick Jagger called,” Mr. Grazer said. “He’d cleared all the key rights and read the script. He wanted to partner up.”
Mr. Jagger thought Brown’s “life and times and his struggle against adversity” deserved a film treatment, he said via email. Not only did he push to get “Get On Up” made but he is also producing a coming documentary about Brown directed by the Oscar-winning Alex Gibney.
“James was an early influence on me in many ways,” Mr. Jagger said. “He showed me how to interact with an audience and that you always have to give 100 percent of your energy every show.”
Though not close friends, Brown and Mr. Jagger did interact quite a bit in the ’60s. Both performed in “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a multi-act concert filmed in 1964, a sequence that plays a small part in the biopic.
It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon of the Obama presidency that a surprising number of films focused on black American history have both been financed and successful: “42,”“Django Unchained,” “The Help,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the 2014 Oscar winner for best picture, “12 Years a Slave.” In addition, two separate films centered on Nelson and Winnie Mandela have been released. A film about Jimi Hendrix is due in September. A biopic of Nina Simone has been filmed; a feature about the 1965 civil rights march that began in Selma just wrapped; one about Miles Davis is shooting now; and projects about the rap group NWA and the rapper Tupac Shakur are in the works.
African-Americans tend to view any Hollywood treatments of their history with at best guarded optimism and often with dread. Decades of omissions, half-truths and outright lies about their role in this nation’s history tend to make black viewers skeptical of the most well-intentioned projects. There is also a sense that black directors and writers are being excluded from telling these stories in Hollywood since, with a few notable exceptions (Mr. Daniels, Steve McQueen of “12 Years a Slave” and Ava DuVernay of “Selma,” among them), these films have been told by white producers, writers and directors. That said, many of these projects have languished, in some cases, for decades until the current epoch. Certainly, they have been a boon to many black performers. Chadwick Boseman, a relatively unknown young actor, has, with Jackie Robinson in “42” and now Brown, played two of the most important cultural figures in American history.
Portraying Brown is complicated by the singer himself, who sometimes seemed to be a caricature of soul music emotion as well as an expression of it. This was particularly true in the last decades of his life, when in the “Blues Brothers” movies and TV appearances he played cartoonlike versions of himself.
Even back at his height as a best-selling recording artist and cultural figure in the ’60s and ’70s, Brown was ridiculed by stand-up comedians for his guttural singing, sweaty histrionics and massive ego. One of Eddie Murphy’s signature “Saturday Night Live” moments was the 1983 skit “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party,” in which he parodied Brown’s vocals and processed hair, and, backed by a funky band, squealed about the virtues of relaxing in bubbling hot water. It was a wickedly funny take on Brown that showcased Mr. Murphy’s genius for mimicry and made it hard to watch Brown again without a knowing smile. Mr. Murphy’s version of Brown was so compelling that even when he played James (Thunder) Early in“Dreamgirls” (2006), a character who looked a lot like the soul singer Wilson Pickett, it was hard not to see it as another version of Brown.
Truthfully, Brown’s legacy is much richer than just passionate singing. With the aid of the arrangers Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, Brown reworked the bluesy basis of rhythm and blues so that every instrument worked as part of the rhythm section, creating funk music in the process. Though “Get On Up” doesn’t spend much time on Brown’s creative process, there is an effective scene in which Brown browbeats his band, making every musician, from guitarist to trumpeter, testify to the notion that everyone is playing “a drum.”
At the film’s end, a title card explains how widely his beats have been sampled. But there are no scenes showing Brown’s initial irritation with his music being reworked, his struggle to understand sampling or his collaborations with hip-hop figures like Afrika Bambaataa. Hip-hop samples, both of his music and his vocals, have kept Brown relevant to young listeners in a way that have eluded most of his ’60s soul peers. The spit-and-polish Brown trying to relate to saggy-pants M.C.s could have been fun.
Like many musicians, Brown suggested in interviews that you’d learn all you need to know about him by listening to his music, but that actually isn’t true. His ideas about ownership and control of his career were visionary. Before running into tax troubles in the mid-’70s Brown owned a number of radio stations, fast-food restaurants, record labels and a private plane well before it became a rock-star staple.
My favorite sequence in “Get On Up” is not a stage performance or a temper tantrum, but a moment when Brown’s smarts are depicted. His manager and booking agent Ben Bart gives him a Cadillac as a gift, a clichéd way for white authority figures to reward black stars for achievement. Brown is not impressed. Later, he outlines a new system of touring, assuming a central role in booking his shows and thus minimizing promoters’ ability to pocket most of the gate.
Brown would sit in his dressing room after every show going over the box office ledger and greeting local radio D.J.s and record store owners until he’d shaken every hand, all the while getting his hair done. Brown, no doubt, was over the top. But young James Brown was also a forward thinker who would thrive in the current music environment, in which artists are self-contained enterprises who rely not on record company largess but on their own talent, innovations and moxie.
article by Nelson George via nytimes.com