I must admit, I am very excited to see the James Brown biopic Get On Up finally arrive on the big screen, in theaters nationwide today August 1. It was one of those projects that over the years you’d hear about, but then something would happen to halt progress. Unfortunately in the case of this film, it was the passing of the legendary protagonist himself. So when I read that rock legend Mick Jagger had hopped on board as a producer, and that the green light was bright, it was as we used to say when I was younger “a bet!” And then I read that actor and star of “42” Chadwick Boseman was cast as the “Godfather of Soul,” and I was all like – really? But my curiosity and partial doubt was soon removed with the release of the trailer earlier this year; which depicted Boseman fluidly, vividly, and amazingly twirling, stepping and splitting into the legendary moves pioneered by the “hardest working man in show business.” I was convinced that “Get On Up,” if accurately summated and synonymous with the trailer, would be a great film befitting of Mr. Brown’s stature.
It’s well noted how much Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger was influenced by Brown, and producer Brian Grazer also professes that he was highly influenced by him (see video here). I believe this Tate Taylor directed vehicle will do well based off of the merits of Brown himself, but definitely also because of the buzz-worthy performance of lead Chadwick Boseman. I was one of the people crying foul last year when he wasn’t mentioned anywhere for his “42” performance, but I will be “fit to be tied” if he isn’t in the award season acknowledgments this year. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say how amazing of a performance was given by Nelsan Ellis, who portrays fellow musician and lifelong friend of Brown’s Bobby Byrd.
At its core, “Get On Up” is a celebration of the life of James Brown, arguably one the greatest entertainers to walk the planet, as well as one of the most complicated. The film, with a screenplay written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, does not shy away from the difficult moments; and as a matter of fact opens with one of the most challenging – Mr. Brown’s drug use and the 1988 incident that led to a three-year stint in prison. The film gives a fair look at some of the ups and downs of his life, from his childhood struggle with poverty and abandonment by his parents, to his meteoric rise to fame and the struggles, many self-imposed, that came along or were exacerbated by it. More importantly, it presented a realistic look at the man whose talent sparked use of many legendary monikers including “Mr. Dynamite,” and “Soul Brother No. 1.” I was most impressed by the film’s display of James Brown as a man who was aware and assured of the spiritual call on his life, and the film’s balance of reflecting him as humanly flawed.
Back in June, I had the pleasure of talking to James Brown’s daughter Deanna Brown-Thomas, and we discussed everything from her father’s music to his philanthropic legacy (see my June examiner.com article here for more on the latter). When discussing his spirituality and my telling her I’d read he had a bible opened in every room of the house she stated, “Every last one of them was opened to Psalm 37.” She related to me the story, as mentioned in the film, about how her father had stopped breathing after birth and a mid-wife was able to resuscitate him – an act that James Brown believed was proof of a greater call on his life, as reflected in the film’s Vietnam War helicopter scene.
When asked if she was active on the set during filming, Mrs. Brown-Thomas advised that the film was completed during the holiday season, which is when the James Brown Family Children Foundation, of which serves as President, is busy with its holiday toy and turkey giveaway tradition, also depicted in the film. But she shared that her, “son, cousin and Keith (Jenkins, a maestro at the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils or JAMP) was on the set, so I had ears and eyes. I was also a consultant on the film, along with my mother and sister.” When I asked her feelings on having her parents portrayed on the big screen, her father by South Carolina native Chadwick Boseman and mom by Philly native Jill Scott, she shared, “Jill Scott asked my son a lot of questions on the set and my son questioned my mother so he could be prepared. The director and Chadwick spoke to mom, and it’s really something because it’s both my parents. I know it’s the James Brown story, but my mother was there during the time he was at his peak. It hits at home because it involves all of my family – me, my brothers, sisters and everyone.”
After rambling through everything that James Brown meant to me as a child through adulthood, and how much he’d influenced my musical tastes, I inquired what Deanna Brown-Thomas most wanted the younger generation to know about James Brown, the man. After pausing for a moment, she eloquently shared, “To me first he was daddy. But when I got into radio and the entertainment business, I realized who he was to the world. And throughout the years, even after his death, after travelling the world and speaking to so many people, and knowing the struggles and everything he went through, young folks need to understand this – there is no excuse. My father was not educated, he was very poor, he had to stop education at the 7th grade and he had to make it work with what God gave him, his raw talent. There was no music education, and no JAMP, for him to go. He wasn’t afforded that. So when you see that and you think of all the resources that younger kids have now, there’s no excuse.” Quick to add that she can’t speak to all that is required because of the privileges afforded her, she jokingly adds that her husband can better relate because he grew up in “the hood,” she highlights that her point is young people can take nothing and no opportunity for granted.
Throughout our conversation, Mrs. Brown-Thomas relayed stories and I offered examples of how much her father’s music impacted people across various cultures, races and generations. She joked about the JAMP maestro Keith Jenkins, who blew away her father when he, as a young white, curly red-haired kid, played a medley of the legend’s songs to him and knocked it out of the park. I offered that one of my favorite James Brown moments was a video of him singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” in front of a pre-dominantly white studio audience in the late 60’s, and one of the people who appeared most engaged, dancing and singing word for word, was an Asian woman – doing it! She noted that the influence her father had worldwide was recently displayed when the JAMP CD, released on CD Baby earlier this year, received its first online purchase order from Japan.
It could be argued that what exemplifies James Brown’s biggest musical impact is the influence he’s had on other artists and genres of music, especially hip-hop. He is the world’s most sampled recording artist, and his song “Funky Drummer” is the most sampled individual piece of music in history. He without a doubt spoke a musical language, be it about life’s highs or lows, to which anyone could relate. And he obtained a massive amount of honors and broke down a lot of barriers while doing so.
“I always said, if people wanted to know who James Brown is, all they have to do is listen to my music” – James Brown.
I couldn’t have ended this post any better than with Mr. Brown’s own words.
Until next thought family, Thomasena