James Brown a/k/a the Godfather of Soul, precursor to Prince, did not lead what you would call a wholesome life. He grew up in a shack dirt poor, lived in a brothel, went to prison at age 16 for robbery, later went to prison again for assault and battery and, throughout his career — despite insisting his band members stay clean — did drugs, abused women and, well, as the expression goes, wasn’t nothin’ nice.
On the other hand, his was, it goes without saying, one hell of a career. He was, onstage, on record and over the radio — long before MTV — celebrated, hell, worshipped as the entertainment heart and soul of grassroots Black America at its grittiest. When he released “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” it immediately became the national anthem for a 1960s groundswell that saw increasing urban unrest and hailed Brown as Soul Brother No. 1.
When the film biography Get On Up hits movie theaters August 1, you can believe it will be well attended across the country. This reviewer has mixed feelings right off the bat.
The supporting cast is rock solid with Nelsan Ellis, wonderfully acerbic as Lafayette in HBO’s True Blood, playing Brown’s main man and bandleader Bobby Byrd, the marvelously versatile Jill Scott (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, again from HBO) as his second wife DeeDee (interestingly his third wife Adrienne Rodriguez, his abuse of whom made headlines is left out of the movie) and gifted character Lennie James as his father Joe Brown. For good measure also on hand are Dan Akroyd, Aunjanue Ellis and Viola Davis.
If Chad Boseman, playing James Brown, is as dimensionless as he was starring in 42 as Jackie Robinson, this is going to be, just like 42, a case of superb acting succeeding despite little more than a warm body in the lead.
It’s directed by Tate Taylor whose The Help, depending who you listen to, was either a sterling tribute to Black women making a way as best they could in the 1960’s work force or a glorification of maids and mammies. It’s produced by Mick Jagger, who could in all fairness be called a White James Brown — after all, each was a flying fury at the microphone and neither one could sing a lick yet pulled it off spectacularly on the strength of fiery emotion and galvanizing charisma. One thing about which there can be little doubt. This is a film that will not come and go unnoticed.
Get On Up opens August 1 at area theaters.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses atP.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.