Recreating the Unique

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“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.

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