It becomes quickly apparent that Prince stole his entire act off James Brown. Dances, microphone moves, wardrobe, and hairstyle. Not Prince’s world-class guitar playing, naturally. (That’s courtesy of Santana and Hendrix.) But as prodigious a talent as Prince is, he only altered the funk.
The megalithic, trail-blazing talent of James Brown birthed it. Disco, funk, house, trance, drum & bass, hip-hop, rap, the swingier parts of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and even Metallica, are all direct descendants of James Brown’s transmogrification of the blues and 1960s soul into the funk.
For years, the mere thought of an actor attempting to capture James Brown on-screen was cringe-inducing. Every black actor with middling mimicry chops can throw down a competent Bill Cosby impression, but only Eddie Murphy had the ability to talk like James Brown.
But as a young comic, Eddie was a little too light in the loafers to pull off a dramatic rendering of the force of nature that was James. Still might be.
Now, Chadwick Boseman has finally nailed it in the smokin’ James Brown biopic “Get On Up.” This is Boseman’s second-in-a-row, slam-dunk bio role after his brilliant turn as Jackie Robinson in “42.”
Oh, he nails it. Top to bottom. Hair, talk, attitude, and jittery, shimmying, blurry-footed dance moves. Not even Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles surpasses Boseman becoming Brown. Close, maybe. But if Jamie won an Oscar, so must Chadwick.
Basically, the film follows a pinball-with-signposts approach, based on the various titles (most self-imposed) that Brown accrued over the years, like “Mr. Dynamite,” “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “His Bad Self,” and so on.
“Get On Up” kicks off by showing us a latter-day James Brown freak-out. Under the influence, toting a shotgun, and irate that someone used the public toilet in one of his buildings—blam! He blows a hole in the ceiling. And then he hilariously consoles the terrified perpetrator in a moment of self-revelation, allowing as to how he might have taken such an opportunity himself. Because James didn’t grow up with any opportunities.
As a boy in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was not uncommon for him to find lynched black men hanging in trees. Little James was dirt-poor, viciously beaten by alcoholic dad, and tragically abandoned by mom.
Forced to work as a barker for a house of ill repute, 8-year-old James yelled, “Pretty girls! Whiskey!” He also had to take part in a demeaning sport for the mint-julep set—little black boys were put in a boxing ring, blindfolded, one hand tied behind their backs, and made to pummel each other until only one was left standing. James stood. Demeaning, but it honed James’s risk-taking toughness.
He takes such a risk later. His band, the Famous Flames, shamelessly jump on stage and jam when Little Richard (Brandon Smith) is on cigarette break. Ultimately forgiven, James gets music business advice from the more experienced (and just as flamboyant) Mr. Penniman.
Little Richard and James Brown were more or less gay and straight versions of the same person: both pompadoured dynamos, both super-loud, and both ultra-talented innovators. There was more than a little rivalry between them. The tension between the two actors in these scenes is electric.
But still. Little Richard rode the coattails of the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry, while James Brown became king of the funk.
The band hits the big-time, and James, in cutthroat fashion, subjugates his friends and band mates to underling/employee status. The record company sharks immediately smell blood in the water, recognizing that the money will roll in only if James got top billing. James knows it too.
His comprehensive showbiz talent included business savvy above and beyond that of his handlers, especially his first manager, ham-fistedly played here by Dan Aykroyd. In a scene much like Eddie Murphy’s in “Trading Places,” Boseman showcases James’s street-honed business smarts with a monologue about using common sense regarding human behavior.
Eventually, trailing multiple (current and former) wives, kids, Learjets, and other classic alpha-male spoils of war, James’s stature became such that he could calm a mutinous Boston Garden concert crowd in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Devil’s Music: A History
“Get On Up” is the PG-13 version of James, but James’s actual life was quite a bit more X-rated. It would have been interesting to see a grittier, darker version (more like “Ray”) with less of the comedic breaking-the-fourth-wall device (Chadwick-as-James speaking to the camera a lot).
The movie’s most powerful scene shows the mother who abandoned James (Viola Davis) showing up after a gig to flatter her son with the intent to hoover up a bit of the James Brown riches.
Davis is devastating. When she says, “I did the best I could. And I am ashamed,” we realize that these words are coming from a place of deep truth, ripping open old wounds even as she utters them. James remains cold as ice until she leaves, and then he breaks down, telling band mate Bobby to “get her anything she needs.”
Brown’s long-suffering friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) takes a lifetime of abuse from James, only to be won over as James sings to him, in the crowd, after years of estrangement—a repentance, an apology, and a declaration of love and friendship. Both actors quietly blow this scene away. The movie could have used more of this. In fact, just the removal of Aykroyd’s performance from the film would have had the immediate effect of making it weightier.
Had the teeth not been taken out of “Get On Up,” there might be more of an understanding of why, historically, American (white) kids didn’t get to listen to early James. Did James bring the “devil’s music” like preachers and parents warned?
No. The devil jumped into music way before that. Some musicologists say that the sentimentality in Renaissance music is where the devil crept in; medieval church music’s austere fifths still held human emotion at bay.
The great American racial divide in music consisted of James Brown’s black proto-funk as the “roll” (sex) in “rock and roll,” while “rock” (eventually considered white) followed its logical progression to nihilistic punk, and death metal.
The great German poet-philosopher Goethe was among the first to recognize the sex-death dichotomy as the red devil (Lucifer) in cahoots with the black devil (Satan). In modern American music, it translates to the two extremes of sex and death cooperating to capsize mankind’s spiritual voyage off the middle way. It’s enough to make you want to “break out—in a cold sweat.”
Be that as it may, this pastel-colored, nostalgic look back, with James (as he puts it) “in a sapphire blue suit and the band in purple brocade,” is a fitting tribute to a man who in many ways was an American hero, living the American dream. Such as it is. And some of us, sometimes, get ants in our pants and we like to dance. That’s a James Brown lyric.
James composed music using every instrument percussively. The object of the funk is to bypass your consciousness to the point that your body must move of its own accord. When this happens, dance a few bars of the Funky Chicken and scream: “I feel good like I knew that I would!” And then get thee to a church and listen to some Gregorian chant to get the devil out.
‘Get On Up’
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Octavia Spencer
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Release date: August 1
4 stars out of 5