This has been a good week for me. Everything has lead up to last weekend’s release of the James Brown biopic Get on up. I have been looking forward to this movie for several months now, and here I was preparing to finally see this major film event. I easily have that opinion because I rarely go to the movies to view anything on the big screen these days. Yet, here I was preparing to pay money to sit and watch a new release with an audience of strangers. As I drove toward the multiplex of theaters, I started to think back to the time of James Brown’s death. A friend of mine spoke with a young rap artist and asked what he and his contemporaries had planned in tribute to Brown. She stated that rappers had liberally sampled his music and made billions of dollars as a result, and therefore owed him some sort of acknowledgement.
At the time I agreed with my friend but later digressed a bit from that opinion. I don’t think it would be fair to put the mandate of a tribute upon one struggling hip hop artist on behalf of an entire genre and/or industry. Even some of the leaders in hip hop like Jay-Z, or P Diddy would struggle to speak on behalf of all rap artists although possessing a greater platform to do so. James Brown’s music has such a wide appeal worldwide, that the tribute should reach not only his audience, but also the audience that has been influenced by his music. Wow, that is indeed casting a wide net.
A motion picture just might be the perfect tribute for a legendary performer like James Brown. As I walked into the theater there were a few people in attendance, and I quickly took a seat where I could see most of the crowd as they filed in. Interestingly, most of the people were older than me. I am fifty years old meaning I was aware of James Brown in the height of his career, but I don’t think I could fully appreciate his music until later. Most of the folks seated around me surely had memories of Brown’s ascension to stardom. Then again, I took a closer look and saw much younger people. Children or perhaps grandchildren of the folks I noticed initially. This would be a great history lesson for the younger ones who never knew or saw a James Brown performance, but are still feeling the effects of his music. Our next generation of children can certainly recognize the iconic artist James Brown from photographs. However, his story and music are not understood and this movie will hopefully educate the young masses. Some years ago the film Ray starring Jamie Foxx in the title role effectively educated our young people about Ray Charles and his music.
Get on up is a thoroughly enjoyable film that I encourage everyone to see. As the musical portions of the movie played it brought back memories of this very good music of my childhood. I realized more and more the best word to describe James Brown music is original. The music he produced was unlike anything heard previously. Brown created a new standard of funk that still exists today; and I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future. The film also gives us insight into the factors and life events and explains why he developed the music that is now timeless.
I’m sure, like any Hollywood production, the creators of Get on up took a few liberties in telling the James Brown story. However, I think they got the overall feeling right. The Brown family lived in extreme poverty in nearby Elko, South Carolina, which was an impoverished town at the time. They later relocated to Augusta, Georgia when Brown was four or five. Brown’s family first settled at one of his aunts’ brothels and later moved into a house shared with another aunt. Brown’s mother later left the family after a contentious marriage and moved to New York. Brown spent long stretches of time on his own, hanging out in the streets and hustling to get by. Brown managed to stay in school until sixth grade.
The film revealed much about how James Brown developed his drive and work ethic. He would go on to become known as (among other names) the “hardest working man in show business”. Possibly the best aspect of films such as Get on up, is that the imperfections and pain of the subject are portrayed right along with the success. I have had the pleasure of meeting and even recording with a couple of musicians that played with Brown at times in their respective music careers. Through them I learned a great deal about James Brown long before his eventual death. As with any other great artist, they told some good things about their time performing with the Godfather of Soul and some negative stories I would never write. Nevertheless, all their stories fall right in line with other musical greats who knew what they wanted and demanded near perfection from hired musicians.
Finally the story of James Brown is being told and made available to all. This film does seem like a fitting tribute to one of the most amazing performers the world has ever seen.
(This post is dedicated Henry “Po Hank” Donahue, my fellow studio musician, friend, brother and one of the best musicians I have ever known who left us October 2013)