Wednesday, August 6, 2014

James Brown

I can't describe myself as ever really having been much of a James Brown fan ... but I sure was looking forward to the new bio-pic starring Chadwick Boseman, who was so impressive portraying Jackie Robinson in "42" a couple of years ago.  In that the people behind the new film had also produced the hit movie "The Help" (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I went in with very high expectations (especially after my overall disappointment with the "Jersey Boys" film.)  The previews were exciting and we promoted the film several times in Forgotten Hits.  

While I liked the obvious, major hits ("I Got You", "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "Cold Sweat", "There Was A Time" and my personal favorite, "It's A Man's Man's Man's World") James Brown wasn't a major presence on Chicago radio back in the '60's ... not on our two Top 40 giants anyway. (I can't speak for an all-Black station like WVON as I didn't listen to it back then ... but I'd venture to guess he had FAR more hits THERE than he did on either WLS or WCFL.)  

When one considers that Brown scored 94 Billboard Hot 100 Hits between 1958 and 1986 (second only to Elvis), it's a bit surprising to see that only sixteen of those made our local survey ... especially when you consider the incredible number of Blacks that make up our Chicago population.  And, even at that, only FOUR of those made The Top Ten.  Conversely, Brown had 16 #1 Singles on Billboard's R&B Singles Chart ... but only four Top Ten Pop Hits, the biggest being "I Got You (I Feel Good)" which peaked at #3 in 1965.  So a lot of product ... but not a lot of "hits" with the cross-over community.  (One might think this could potentially limit the audience appeal of such a film ... but top-notch acting and good word of mouth should trump that ... after all, look what the Jamie Foxx-led Ray Charles flick "Ray" did.)  One major objection I have with the portrayal of Brown, however, is the fact that a good percentage of his dialog is nearly unintelligible ... you simply can't understand a great deal of what he's saying!  While I had hoped that I would pick up on the bulk of his phrasing as the film progressed, thus making it easier to understand him as the film moved forward, this didn't prove to be the case.  There were entire pieces of dialog that went by me.)

Initial box office receipts indicated the film would do between $14 - $18 Million opening weekend ... hardly killer box office (but still better than "Jersey Boys" did its opening weekend) ... and, apparently, good enough for third place.  That being said, I don't think there were fifteen people in the theater when Frannie and I saw the film ... but it WAS kinda cool being one of the youngest spectators there!!!  (lol)  [For the record, final weekend numbers put the film at just over $14 Million ... third place ... and about $80 MILLION behind last week' #1 Hit "Guardians of the Galaxy"!  Reviews were mixed ... Cinescore interviews with fans leaving the theater gave the film a C+ while Rotten Tomatoes scored it a little better, with 77% positive reviews.  Local film critic Richard Roeper echoes my views, calling the film "somewhat sanitized" ... actually, I'd say HIGHLY sanitized ... but says it was redeemed by Boseman's electric performance.] 

I first came to know of James Brown through The Lloyd Thaxton Show, which I used to watch every weekday afternoon when I got home from school.  Brown seemed to have a regular presence on that program ... whether he was performing on it (via some well-choreographed lip-synching) or they were simply giving away copies of his latest album.  (I swear it seemed like he had a new LP out every three weeks or so!  And most of them were "live".)  Truth is, James hit Billboard's Album Chart TWELVE times between 1963 and 1966 ... and only TWO of those were live LP's ... but that was just my perception back then at the time.  (Another one was his Christmas album.)  A few years later, Brown would give whole new meaning to the word "popcorn" using it in five song titles in 1969 alone!!!  (Thankfully, NONE of these songs were featured in the new film's soundtrack!) 

In fact, the soundtrack, good as it is, is missing several James Brown classic hits ... most notably his big comeback hit "Living In America" from "Rocky IV", a Top Five smash in 1985.  (This may be because it wasn't released on King Records, from whom Executive Music Director Mick Jagger was able to license most of the music for use in the film.  Fact is, while Brown recorded most of his biggest hits for the King label, his music was released on MANY different record labels during the course of his career ... including King, Federal, Smash, Polydor and finally Scotti Brothers ... although none of this is depicted in the film.)  Another obvious omission would have to be "I Got Ants In My Pants And I Want To Dance" from 1973.  Instead of these much bigger hits, we're treated to "Caledonia" (a #95 hit from 1964 ... but an absolutely STUNNING performance on film) and "Please Please Please", released TWICE as a single but never climbing higher than #95.  (It is, however, one of James Brown's signature songs ... the performance of which blew the doors off at the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964.) 

I'm happy to report that ALL of the musical performances captured in this film are top notch ... as is the acting throughout.  The film doesn't tell Brown's story in conventional biography form, from start to finish.  Instead, it jumps around to major events in James' life, giving viewers a glimpse of what was happening with his sound (and look) at various stages of his career.  (It actually starts off ... and ends ... in 1988, with one particular low-point ... when Brown, toting a rifle, shoots up one of his own buildings because a woman there for a seminar dared to use his bathroom!)  Perhaps the biggest misnomer of the film is the way it downplays Brown's violent, excessive and erratic behavior, kind of glossing over these facts in favor of showing the rough childhood that most likely contributed to some of these traits.  (Brown's mother left him at an early age to work as a prostitute ... and his father never wanted him at all, choosing to join the army instead, rather than raising a young boy at home!) 

There was a time (James Brown pun intended) when James was almost as well known for his run-ins with the police and his mug shots as he was for his music and his album covers.  He was violent and abusive to all of the women in his life (in the film it shows James as being married and faithful to one woman, who he DOES slap across the room at one point in the movie ... when, in fact, he was legally married three times ... a fourth marriage was ruled invalid because his new wife at the time was still legally married to someone else!)  Brown regularly made headlines for his violent and abusive nature toward the women in his life ... and was arrested numerous times for domestic violence charges. In addition, Brown had NINE children (not just the one shown in the film) as well as at least three acknowledged others out of wedlock.  Again, the film doesn't mention ANY of this.  He also served more jail time than the one sentence depicted in the film for stealing a suit ... and, while mentioned by one of his on-screen band members, Brown's legal issues for failing to pay income taxes were FAR more severe than simply not paying his back-up musicians.  After many years of a strict "no drugs" policy amongst his band ... and a strong anti-drug campaign that he was proud to launch publicly, Brown himself also had a drug problem in his later years which is completely ignored in the film. 

The film also captures some of Brown's creative and inventive ideas ... musically this is best illustrated in the rehearsals for his 1967 hit "Cold Sweat".  Brown became pretty wrapped up in his own mystique ... he was The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Soul Brother #1, The Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite and The King Of Funk, all various incarnations during his evolving career.  He used his own money to finance his legendary "Live At The Apollo" album when the record label felt it was too big an investment to make.  He renegotiated his take with promoters by taking the bookings into his own hands and promoting them through the radio stations and disc jockeys who loved his music (and were already playing it anyway!)  He was also very involved in the Civil Rights Movement (barely touched upon in the film and even then, more as a reaction to the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King and Brown's insistence that his concert go on as scheduled, despite protests from the promoters and venue.)  He DID insist on going to Viet Nam to entertain our troops (where his plane was nearly shot down!)  He promoted a whole "Don't Be A Drop-Out" campaign to keep young black children in school, pursuing their education ... and used the power of his celebrity on numerous occasions to draw attention to these issues.  Musically, he inspired countless other performers (including the film's Executive Music Director Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, who were collectively blown away when they saw Brown perform at the T.A.M.I. concert ... after James' show-stopping performance, The Stones then had to follow him on stage to close the show ... not an easy task for even the most seasoned performer ... which The Stones were NOT at this point in their career!) as well as, most notably, a young Michael Jackson, who mimicked many of Brown's signature moves until he invented a few new ones of his own.  Brown's influence can still be seen today, some 50 years later, in contemporary artist / mega star Bruno Mars, who has mastered many of James' very best spins, slides, and drops and executes them with precision timing and perfection in each and every one of his shows night after night after night.  (This, too, wasn't even mentioned in the film.) 

Also short-changed ... Brown's whole infamous "cape routine" ... yet ANOTHER signature part of a James Brown performance.  If for no other reason than to educate the unindoctrinated new James Brown fan and viewer, this segment should have run its full course of five minutes in order for one to better appreciate all the effort, impact  and choreography that went into this dramatic sequence of events ... rather than just being brushed over with a 30-second nod to the somewhat obvious.  (Yes, we've ALL seen it before ... but we LOVE it ... and it was a KEY part of James' stage show.  Producers should have at least considered that this whole experience may not be QUITE so obvious when adding NEW fans to the fold ... and even at that, it's a tale WELL worth the retelling.) 

At nearly 2 1/2 hours in length (although it moved along pretty quickly for me), it probably would have been difficult to tell even more of the story ... but glossing over some key, very negative character traits does NOT present an accurate biography of the person being profiled ... and I have to deduct points for this.  Likewise, the bulk of the film is told from the recollections and perspective of Brown's long-time sideman (and probably best friend in life), Bobby Byrd and, as such, may be a bit "tainted" and prejudicial at times.  I also feel some attention should have been paid to James' comeback in the early '80's, after an extended period of time out of the spotlight ... as well as all of the hoopla surrounding his death in 2006 on Christmas Day.  (Incredibly, James even went through costume changes while his body was on display for viewing ... and there was talk for quite some time back then of taking that "preserved" body out on the road so that fans from all over the country could come pay homage to their fallen idol!  James Brown ... The FINAL World Tour ... Incredible!!!)  

For more on the REAL story of James Brown, you'll find an excellent, well-researched overview here:  Click here: James Brown - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  ... normally, this is NOT something we would typically recommend ... but in this instance, this one is VERY well done.     

As far as a final review of the film, I originally gave it a "4" on a 1-10 rating system ... but have since raised it to a "5" as I did spend a WHOLE lot of time during the 48 hours post-viewing period thinking about the whole presentation.  Musically, it's outstanding ... and the acting is superb ... top-notch ... and I really did like the way the story was presented in a non-conventional chronological, "story-telling" order.  My benchmark has always been that a film ranked at a "5" or better is a film I would watch again ... and I WILL watch this film again once it hits the cable circuit.  My gut-reaction is that I'll probably enjoy it more and more with each repeated viewing.  (This has been the case with SO many of these musical bio-pics in the past.  A movie like "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" depicting The Frankie Lymon Story was panned by critics ... but it has become an addictive "must watch" every time I happen across it while switching channels, as is The Temptations flick that seems to be on non-stop, 24/7 on SOME cable channel.  Most of the time now I avoid clicking on it all together because I know that once I do, my next four hours are committed to sitting there watching it yet again!  lol) 

FH Reader (and MAJOR Soul Fan) Chet Coppock had a much stronger reaction to the film ... he gives it "four stars and counting" in his review below.  What did YOU guys think?  Let us know and we'll run a follow up piece in the next week or so. 


I just caught Chadwick Boseman's riveting, yet vulnerable cinematic portrait of James Brown in "Get On Up."  This is the film I believe Clint Eastwood would have liked to have made with Jersey Boys.  

Boseman shows the audience the hyper-energy of Mr. Dynamite along with his obsession with "being in control."

I am hardly an expert on James but two things come to mind ...  

I first saw Soul Brother No.1 at the old Regal Theater at 47th and South Parkway (Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) in 1967. Two, Brown was the most dynamic and influential musical force of the 20th century ... greater than Sinatra, John and Paul, Mick and Keith or, yes, Elvis Presley.

**** Four Stars and counting ... not to be missed. Will be interested to see what other FH team members have to say about a superb film about a flawed, but remarkably brilliant man.

"Stay on the scene like a sex machine"

Yo, my new read ... "Chet Coppock: Laying It On The Line" will be out August 14.

Chet Coppock
Host: Chicago Blackhawks Heritage Series
Host: Notre Dame Football, WLS Radio

Here's a blurb about James Brown's REAL manager from back in the day (portrayed in the film by Dan Aykroyd), sent in to us by FH Reader Tom Cuddy ...