James Brown was known as the Godfather of Soul so any film attempting to depict his life and music career would have to have soul at its heart. Tate Taylor’s (The Help) film tells the story of James Brown, from childhood through his career, and uses plenty of blood, sweat and tears to do so. It is obvious right off the jump that Taylor is trying to make this as authentic a biopic as possible.
The story is not told in a linear fashion rather it hops back and forth all over the place. For clarity sake I give you the summary in chronological order. He starts off with James Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman – 42, The Express) impoverished beginnings through his climb to the top of the music world. What you glean from the in between is how hard the man had to work. That is the blood and sweat part. The hard work also translates into an overly long (138 minutes) film. It was almost like Taylor wanted us to actually feel how hard James Brown worked. We are put through the wringer right alongside him.
As a child James Brown was abandoned by his mother, Susie Brown (Viola Davis – Doubt, Prisoners) and his father, Joe (Lennie James – Snatch, Colombiana), who was just not equipped, dumped him at his Aunt Honey’s (Octavia Spencer – Being John Malkovich, Snowpiercer). That would have been an okay solution except she ran a whorehouse. This meant it was entirely up to James to drag himself out of the gutter and make something out of himself.
He stumbled out of the gate and gets himself arrested. It is in jail that he meets up with a man who is going to be a big influence on the adult James Brown, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis – from television’s True Blood). Byrd really brought funk and soul to James. Bobby became part of James’ backing band throughout his career and they enjoyed a fraternal type relationship with its share of ups and downs. Another man who he comes to build a relationship with is his white, Jewish manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd – Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers). Bart helps James Brown navigate his way to the top of the musical heap.
Despite the little boo boos here and there this film is a success. Though the picture of the man is an incomplete one it is one that gives you enough to go on to amply understand the life of the subject. It shows how the man lived his life to the extremes never going half in. The beauty of the film is in the unexpected moments. For instance, the way it starts off in 1988 with a coked out James Brown storming into the office next to his brandishing a weapon and asking who stunk out his bathroom. A seemingly odd choice and yet in works in the context of this film and Brown’s life. You see right from the beginning that Taylor is going to show you all the interesting parts of this guy’s life – warts and all. James Brown is not shown to be a humble or demure guy. Some with hate him for all that excess while others will see that he worked hard to get where he got. He really is what we love and hate about celebrities with all that swagger and underdog getting to the top of the heap kind of stuff going on.
It is the smaller moments of the film that I found most appealing like when back in Georgia as a young boy he sees his father once again beating the stuffing out of his mother. Instead of hating him she is drawn to the man. That warped idea of women and male/female relationships that James Brown had as an adult grew out of those seminal childhood moments. A small scene but an important one. Especially when we leap forward to his marriage to his second wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott – Steel Magnolia – TV movie) and the abuse of her.
A big part of the success of the film has to be attributed to Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as “the” man. It is a difficult task yet he does it well. He has the dance moves, is almost exactly right on with that unique speaking voice as well as the willingness to show the extremes of the man.
Taylor continues to push the right buttons putting a nice moment up against a horrible one. He is telling a story of a life that was all about contrast. We see both sides of the coin yet it is continuously brought back to us that James Brown was the type of coin that we’d all like to have in our collections.