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.