Mr. Dynamite explodes on the screen

Boseman captures Brown's give till it hurts stage persona.
Boseman captures Brown's give till it hurts stage persona.
Posted: July 31, 2014

THE GODFATHER of Soul. Mr. Dynamite. Soul Brother No. 1. And who can forget . . . The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

If you're of a certain age, you know immediately who we're talking about - James Brown - and are likely intrigued by the flavorful biography of this complicated man, "Get on Up," which hard-core Brown admirers-turned-movie producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger have brought to the screen. Yeah, that Mick Jagger.

But a lot of water has passed under the dam. Brown's gospel/soul-scorched first hit "Please, Please, Please" came out in 1956, when music radio was still divided (like most of the country) along racial lines.

We're fast approaching 30 years since Brown's last chart-topper, "Living in America," and almost eight since he died (Christmas Day, 2006.)

If you're a young'un, you might have picked up on Brown megahits through recurring commercial and movie soundtrack use - especially his 1965 fanfare for funkdom, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," the sugar 'n spiced "I Got You (I Feel Good)," his knock down, rat-a-tat killer "Cold Sweat" and the now politically incorrect ballad testimonial, "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World."

Many documentaries on the civil-rights era have included "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," the Brown anthem of 1968 (a response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination) that "cost me a lot of my crossover audience," Brown would say, but became a unifying anthem. "The words were magical - the ultimate emancipation," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

Or maybe you've tripped upon the performer's cameo in the recurring basic-cable fave "The Blues Brothers." Co-star Dan Aykroyd returns the favor, playing Brown's manager in "Get on Up."

Test screenings have demonstrated that the film appeals to a "40-plus audience," co-producer Grazer shared in a recent interview, but he wants "kids to see it" and has been hoping for endorsements from the hip-hop community - biggies like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Kanye West - whom Grazer met while producing "8 Mile."

"Those guys worship James Brown, who really is the progenitor of hip-hop," Grazer said. "They were all influenced by him and they all feel that some of their funk has come from James Brown. I want kids to see where the music comes from."

You don't have to take his word for it. Hip-hop music tracking site calculates that Brown is by far the No. 1 sampled artist of all time, with more lifts than the three runners-up - Kool and the Gang, Parliament and Sly & the Family Stone - combined.

The meaning here - and Brown's importance in the grand scheme of things - is all about the beats: Brown's insistence that his band put rhythm first, get on their collective "good foot," consider every instrument as "a drum." It's one reason his music still sounds so popping-fresh today.

Meanwhile, Jagger is hoping to convince some of the rock-'n'-roll clan to connect the dots between the nonstop, give till it hurts stage persona that Brown projected and that Jagger gleaned as a kid. The Godfather of Soul's big breakthrough album, "Live at the Apollo," was "a very big part of my early musical education," Jagger's been testifying lately. Even more impactful was seeing the man live a year later (1963) in an English theater, as Mr. Dynamite executed his flawless splits and spins and proto-Moon Walks and (repeatedly) dropped to his knees begging "Please, Please, Please" - moves that Jagger would integrate on stage in the like-minded "Beast of Burden."

And moves that would also inspire the likes of Michael Jackson (who called Brown "my greatest inspiration") and slip-sliding, song and dance men of today, like Prince, Usher and Chris Brown.

"Get on Up" also focuses a lot on that Apollo show and self-financed recording project as an early example of Brown seizing the reins of his career, taking charge of the business as well as the show, setting the stage for his future empire and those of music moguls from Ray Charles (and Jagger) to Jay Z and Puff Daddy.

"Before James there was a dearth of people from the African-American community who were entrepreneurs," noted Jagger, in a recent chat with Billboard. "If you were an entertainer, you were just paid and told what to do and where to go. He was one of the first people that said, 'No. I want to take control.' "

The film also offers some glimpses of Brown wiping the Rolling Stones' collective butt at "The T.A.M.I Show," a 1964 concert close-circuited to movie theaters that Jackson studied repeatedly. (Amazon's got it on DVD for $12.)

Unlike some other recent music biopics, "Get on Up" uses only original recordings to prove how hot Brown turned up his Flames (singers) and band. So you also get to hear cats like Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Bootsy Collins - future solo stars in their own right and with heir bands, like Parliament-Funkadelic.

That tactic works just fine, because Brown spared no expense when it came to recording his shows - though he'd later dirty them up with extra (canned) applause and shout-outs to add to the sense of frenzied "excitement."

Sadly, there are no performances on the movie soundtrack from the oddly named "James Brown Live at the Garden," a strings-endowed and also jazz-jamming concert set actually recorded at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, N.J., (the Garden State!) in January 1967. It was notably Mr. Brown's first "top tier" nightclub engagement - and probably the longest running in the huge showroom's history, stretching over 10 nights.

But you can enjoy an expanded edition of the Latin sessions - again or for the first time, newbies - on iTunes or streaming music sites like Rhapsody.

And "Ain't that a Groove"?

More Godfather of Soul: Check out this video sampler of some great performances, and a gallery of 25 James Brown album covers.



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