Getting James Brown

The Godfather of Soul biopic "Get On Up" arrives with hopes of opening a brand new bag for movies about musicians.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    D. Stevens/Universal
    Chadwick Boseman plays James Brown in "Get On Up."

    The tricky business of making movies about real-life musicians tends to best succeed in flicks about great performers or composers who died far too young.

    It's the same old arc, even if it's not the same old song: struggle followed by fame, which is followed by varying degrees of turmoil before tragedy strikes, the fans mourn and the music lives on. The stories have played out in life – and on film, from "Rhapsody in Blue" (George Gershwin) to "The Glenn Miller Story" to "The Buddy Holly Story" to "Amadeus" (Mozart) to "Sweet Dreams" (Patsy Cline) to "La Bamba" (Ritchie Valens) to "Selena."

    Far more rare are memorable movies about musicians still among us (as with the rollicking Jerry Lee Lewis chronicle, "Great Balls of Fire") or deceased performers who made it past retirement age, even if they never stopped touring (think Jamie Foxx's great turn as Ray Charles in "Ray"). 

    Now, “Get On Up,” a movie depicting the 73-year groove of James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, hits theaters Friday in a bid to crack one of the hardest genres in show business. Still, the film arrives with hopes of opening up a brand new bag for musician biopics.

    That's because there’s never been a superstar quite like James Brown. 

    Rightfully crowned the Godfather of Soul, Brown’s kingdom – and vast influence – extends to funk, R&B, rock and hip-hop. The most explosive performer of his time made fans see, hear and feel his music – a bass-driven exercise in exhilaration, always tightly played by his top-notch band, but designed to get us loose and moving. 

    Recordings of the songs – "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Please, Please, Please," "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag," "Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud" – are intertwined in the pop cultural consciousness with footage of Brown's swivels and splits.

    Those lucky enough to have seen Brown perform in his 1960s hey-day hold a memory that will help keep them forever young. The rest of us are left with images and albums, including 1963’s classic "Live at the Apollo," recorded at the storied Harlem theater where thousands of us waited on freezing lines to bid Brown farewell after his death on Christmas Day 2006.

    Replicating musical magic on the big screen is a huge challenge. So is packing an at-times wild ride into two hours, 18 minutes.

    Brown’s life, which started in the hardscrabble Jim Crow South in 1933, spans major cultural and social shifts. His five-decade career as a groundbreaking musical force also spans media eras from TV to MTV to the Internet Age, with videos of Brown ingrained in us, from his performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to "The Blues Brothers" to "Rocky IV." Even "James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party" – Eddie Murphy’s satirical homage on "Saturday Night Live" – has become part of the iconography.

    That all poses tests for the team behind "Get On Up." As the film’s initially reluctant star, Chadwick Boseman told Matt Lauer on "Today" Tuesday, "There's been a lot of parody and jokes that have been made and I didn't know how you could find the real man and get away from what people already thought about him."

    If anyone can pull off playing Brown, it’s Boseman, whose understated performance as Jackie Robinson buoyed "42." Mick Jagger, a producer of "Get On Up," is a Brown peer and acolyte – and one of the few performers who can even begin to understand his journey.

    The movie, perhaps most importantly, is filled with Brown’s music, which is enough to make us feel good. Check out the trailer

    Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.