Go see it, Get On Up, the new James Brown biopic. Yes, it’s a bit long, and a bit disjointed, but see it. It’s got TRUTH leaking out all over.
For one thing, all the vocals are James Brown His Own Bad Self, because, no one could possibly cover the man.
Early in the film there’s a scene where a very young James Brown goes to a down home church and sees histrionics at the service. The joint is jumpin’ and the sistah’s are fallin’ out. There’s always someone there to catch them when they go.
Because that’s how it’s arranged.
They–the congregation–knows that folks are going to get happy in the Spirit. That’s why they go to church. And when you get happy, you may faint. So there are folks there who know it’s their job to catch the fainters.
It’s called ritual. The details are spontaneous–who faints and when–but the routine is, you know, routine. It’s led by the preacher, who yells and shouts and gets down on his knees and generally has a grand old time getting right with the Lord.
That’s where Brown’s act comes from, the church. The Famous Flames were a gospel group before they were the internationally known backing singers (and dancers, oh yes, they danced too) to the one and only James Brown.
The dancing, too. It’s not a backdrop to the music, it’s part of the music. Music and dance are one whole body whole soul activity.
Where’d Michael Jackson get his moves? Well, some of them from Fred Astaire, some from Cab Calloway (who was moon walking back in the 1920s) and some from James Brown. And then, on top of all that, he made some up as well.
But, as David Remick says in The New Yorker, if you haven’t seen the 18-minute clip from the 1964 T.A.M.I. show, see it. Right here:
The Rolling Stones got top billing, which incensed Mr. James Brown no end:
The Stones had come to the States from England determined to play black R. & B. for a mainly white audience that did not know its Son House from its Howlin’ Wolf. They were already stars, and the T.A.M.I. producers had them scheduled to close the show. James Brown did not approve. “Nobody follows James Brown!” he kept telling the show’s director, Steve Binder. Mick Jagger himself was hesitant. He and Keith Richards were boys from Kent with an unusual obsession with American blues. They knew what Brown could do. In Santa Monica, they watched him from the wings, just twenty feet away, and, as they did, they grew sick with anxiety.Brown, who had played the Chitlin Circuit for years, was genuinely incensed that the producers would put him on before pallid amateurs (in his mind) like the Stones. His performance, he later admitted, was a cutting contest that he refused to lose. As Brown puts it in his memoir, “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul,” “We did a bunch of songs, nonstop, like always. . . . I don’t think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think they’d ever seen a man move that fast.” It was a four-song set: the staccato blues number “Out of Sight”; an astonishing inside-out revival of “Prisoner of Love,” which had been recorded by smoothies like Billy Eckstine and Perry Como; the dramatic centerpiece “Please, Please, Please”; and the closer, “Night Train,” which the boxer Sonny Liston would play to get himself going in the gym.
As for “Please, Please, Please”, when he first recorded it for King Records the president of the company, Syd Nathan, didn’t want to release it. As far as he could tell, there was no music there.
Not, perhaps, as he saw it, be then he wasn’t Soul Brother Number One In Waiting, the Dauphin of Disaster, Grand High Commissioner of the Mysteries of the Universe, and Then Some.
No he wasn’t.
As Philip Gourevitch put it in this New Yorker profile, “Within a year, the song had climbed to sixth place on the R. & B. charts, and was on its way to selling more than a million records.”
Here’s how it went:
When the tape started rolling, he cried out the word “Please” with an immensity of feeling that might, more conventionally, have been reserved for a song’s climax. Then he cried out again, “Please,” and again and again, “Please, please,” at heartbeat intervals. With each repetition, he invested the monosyllable with a different emotional accent and stress—prayer and pride, impatience and invitation—and although there was ache in his voice, he did not sound like a man pleading so much as commanding what was rightfully his. After his fourth “Please,” the rest of the group filled in softly behind him, crooning, “Please, please don’t go,” until the lead singer’s colossal voice surged back over theirs: “Please, please, please.” That was the name of the song, the same word thrice, and, like all truly original things, this song had a past to which it simultaneously paid tribute and bid adieu. Its genesis lay in a rearrangement of the standard “Baby Please Don’t Go,” so that the rhythmic backup line became the lead, and the melodic lead was relegated to the chorus. A simple gimmick; but, as “Please, Please, Please” progressed, the lead singer’s initial passion only intensified, and it became clear that the reversal of foreground and background voices reflected a deliberate emotional attitude that brought a bold new energy and freedom to the spirit of black popular music. Instead of describing feelings in the smooth lyrical surface of a tune you could whistle or at least hum, the singer created the impression of sounds rising untamed from the rawness and obscurity of a soul that refused all masks.
There you have it, flipped the script on music as “we” knew it. The foreground went into the background and the background riffs came front and center.
Rhythm all the way.
There’s a scene in the film that underscores the point. A rehearsal’s not going well. The horn’s are not doing what James wants them to do, nor is anyone else. BUT the drummer. Maceo Parker, on alto sax, says that what Mr. Brown wants doesn’t “fit.” Mr. Brown disagrees, telling him: that’s not a sax, it’s a drum. Same for the trumpet and the guitar. Drums, all of them.
Every instrument’s a drum.
A simple, basic, truth. It’s a drum.