Sunday, July 27, 2014

The James Brown Biopic is on the Way to a Theatre Near You

An immense ego strove to mask any insecurity. His drive to succeed was as unrelenting as his dancing. During the civil rights movement, he emerged as a leader capable of preventing a riot in Boston after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But he was also an eccentric, who would give up his processed hair for an Afro during the “Black Is Beautiful” era, only to return to the retro style because he loved having straight hair.

“Get On Up,” directed by Tate Taylor from a clever screenplay by the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, attempts the difficult task of capturing a driven artist whose career spanned six decades and whose public persona overshadowed his inner life. Just as hip-hop would take break beats from the middle or end of Brown’s records to make new sounds, the Butterworths eschew a linear structure, jumping from 1988 to 1968 to 1938 and so on to put you at important turning points in Brown’s life.
The Obama era in American films:
It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon of the Obama presidency that a surprising number of films focused on black American history have both been financed and successful: “42,” “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the 2014 Oscar winner for best picture, “12 Years a Slave.” In addition, two separate films centered on Nelson and Winnie Mandela have been released. A film about Jimi Hendrix is due in September. A biopic of Nina Simone has been filmed; a feature about the 1965 civil rights march that began in Selma just wrapped; one about Miles Davis is shooting now; and projects about the rap group NWA and the rapper Tupac Shakur are in the works.

All instruments are rhythm instruments (Yes indeed!):

Truthfully, Brown’s legacy is much richer than just passionate singing. With the aid of the arrangers Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, Brown reworked the bluesy basis of rhythm and blues so that every instrument worked as part of the rhythm section, creating funk music in the process. Though “Get On Up” doesn’t spend much time on Brown’s creative process, there is an effective scene in which Brown browbeats his band, making every musician, from guitarist to trumpeter, testify to the notion that everyone is playing “a drum.”
Take control:
Like many musicians, Brown suggested in interviews that you’d learn all you need to know about him by listening to his music, but that actually isn’t true. His ideas about ownership and control of his career were visionary. Before running into tax troubles in the mid-’70s Brown owned a number of radio stations, fast-food restaurants, record labels and a private plane well before it became a rock-star staple.

My favorite sequence in “Get On Up” is not a stage performance or a temper tantrum, but a moment when Brown’s smarts are depicted. His manager and booking agent Ben Bart gives him a Cadillac as a gift, a clichéd way for white authority figures to reward black stars for achievement. Brown is not impressed. Later, he outlines a new system of touring, assuming a central role in booking his shows and thus minimizing promoters’ ability to pocket most of the gate.

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