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Mr Brown, Mr Bart and Mr Byrd

Get On UpOn the way to see Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, in a cinema in Victoria this week, I realised that I was walking past a construction site where once had stood the last place where I saw a performance by the film’s subject. It was the end of the 1970s, and the place was the Venue, a medium-sized joint with an uninspiring name but an excellent atmosphere. I saw all kinds of people there, from the McGarrigle sisters to Sun Ra, via Gary U.S. Bonds and Joe Ely. And the Godfather of Soul was in terrific form that night, not far past his untouchable prime.

Taylor’s movie features a fine central performance by Chadwick Boseman. He doesn’t become his character in the way Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles a few years ago, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He and the brothers Jamarion and Jordan Scott, eight-year-old twins from Mississippi who play Brown at various stages of his childhood, are tackling the story of a complex man.

There are too many artful devices — Brown talking directly to the camera, the boy suddenly appearing in place of the man in a scene from his adult life, various games with flashbacks and original footage — to make it work as a straightforward narrative. At times it seems as though the scriptwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, were influenced more by the multi-faceted approach of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There than by traditional modes of storytelling, but they don’t go the whole way.

Like Taylor Hackford with Ray, the director of Get On Up makes the sensible decision to stick with the original music: what you see is actor-musicians miming, very convincingly, to the real tracks, from “Please Please Please” to “The Payback”. And on a cinema sound system it sounds great, particularly in a reconstruction of the scene from the 1965 teen flick Ski Party where he debuts “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (here’s the original), and in a great recreation of a Paris concert in, I think, 1971 (original here).

It’s a long film at two and a quarter hours, but even that isn’t enough in which to tell the story properly. Give the great documentary maker Ken Burns 1o hours of television time and there might be a chance. Whether or not it works in every dimension, however, Taylor’s film certainly succeeds in two areas. There’s a fruitful concentration on Brown’s relationships with Bobby Byrd, an original member of the Famous Flames who became his right-hand man, and with Ben Bart, his trusted (white) agent, who dropped dead on a golf course in 1968. And the early scenes of Brown’s life as a child — first in a shack in the Georgia pines while his parents’ relationship was falling apart, and then as a kind of mascot in a brothel — make us think about what he endured on the way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

In September 1969, 10 years before that gig at the Venue, Charlie Gillett and I interviewed him (for the Record Mirror and the Melody Maker, respectively). We asked him if, at a time of continuing racial unrest in the United States, with the echoes of the shots that killed Martin Luther King still reverberating, he believed that he had some role and influence as a leader.

“If I can use my position to bring about better understanding,” he told us, “I should take advantage of the opportunity. I want people to respect other people, to see that all kinds of different people, yellow, black, are people! To see that there are all ways of living, and they can exist side by side. I hope I can help to bring people closer together.”

The day after I saw the film, riots broke out again in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere across the USA in response to the decision not to prosecute the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. For all its frequent moments of exhilaration, Get On Up is also a reminder that, beneath the surface, not much has really changed. Or at least much less than we might have hoped.

* The photograph is of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. gary #

    I was told the Venue was a favourite for the dealers to the stars

    November 25, 2014
  2. Roger Carter #

    By all accounts Richard there is an upcoming HBO documentary by Alex Gibney on the great man which is supposed to consist of electrifying concert footage as well as interviews with his great sidemen. Should be definitely worth a look. I am currently reading RJ Smith’s Brown biography “The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown” which is sensational and must be amongst the greatest rock biographies.

    November 26, 2014
  3. Well-balanced review, I look forward to seeing it. It’s amazing that when JB died, there were not wall-to-wall programmes about him. In fact, there was nothing apart from some news items (I suppose dying on Christmas day didn’t help, but that’s JB for you, never easy). Can you imagine the media avalanche if Dylan or McCartney had died? Brown is as influential and important to post-war popular music as Dylan and the Beatles. As his stage intro used to say occaisonally:’First there was Bach, then there was Beethoven… now, there’s Brown!”

    November 26, 2014
  4. I am sorry but I think a lot has changed. It isnt perfect [like here] but afro-American culture and black people generally have come a very long way since the sixties. You meet them at all levels of business in a way you never did before.

    November 26, 2014
  5. Richard Harris #

    “New young guitarist shows up to audition for James Brown. Sets up, plays his very best Grant Green and Wes licks and then James asks him, “Man, OK, but do you REALLY know how to play an E9 chord?” He plays it. “Yeah, but can you REALLY play it for like 3 hours?”

    Old James Brown joke. Although when I first heard “Aint that a groove” and Papa’s New Bag etc in the 60s I thought he is stuck on the “one”…chord, what happened? I soon learnt

    Someone should write an essay about his influence on jazz. Archie Shepp’s, “Mama too tight”?

    November 26, 2014
  6. clive langer #

    Oh my god Richard, I,ve just discovered Mingus,s Oh Yea album with Roland Kirk, I love it, I understand it and I wish I,d got to know it 30 yrs ago, anyway great to get excited! All Best C

    Sent from my iPad


    November 30, 2014

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