Slavery, a massive stain on our remarkable history, gifted the nation and world, an incredible, indigenous musical legacy, that continues to inspire to this very day; Africans were “songsters”, musicians, using home made instruments to entertain, fracture the emotional bondage, subjugation of slavery; their “field hollers”, “patting juba”, spiritual, biographical, drum-beating, rhythmic, soul-throbbing lyrics, created an ephemeral respite from reality. From this tradition emerged: Buddy Bolden, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Martin, Thelonious Monk, Scott Joplin and all that Jazz!
James Brown (1933-2006) was a cult unto himself; destitute, abused childhood led to a phenomena of such magnitude, genius that future replication, is impossible to conceive (Michael Jackson, a close runner-up); Mick Jagger, along with director Tate Taylor in “Get On Up” sink their creative tentacles into the life of the man called “The Godfather/King of Soul”.
Chadwick Boseman (“42”) comes close to perfection, in his interpretation of Brown; his months spent with a dancing coach prove invaluable; pigeon-toed strut, crackling voice, fiery temper, egomania exemplifies Brown’s struggles with demons, temptations in his messianic quest for recognition. The biopic soars with scenes from Brown’s youth: abandonment by his mother (consummate Viola Davis) and father (Lennie James); jail -time for a petty theft but propitious in meeting his lifelong friend “Bobby Byrd” (subtle, sublime performance by Nelsan Ellis); most disturbing was a scene of blindfolded boys in a boxing ring, one arm tied behind their backs, a boxing match of sickening humiliation, for the entertainment of the privileged, accompanied by black musicians playing fanciful tunes. Taylor with Boseman as his foil allow Brown to come to life: flawed, brilliantly, prodigiously skilled, a man obsessed with working, performing; his talent transcending his foibles.
Throughout the film Brown perpetually refers to himself in the third person; expects all to address him as Mr. Brown; he is James Brown, but the poor little boy, in the woods, is watching his progress; lurking in his subconscious, disbelieving, suspect of his fortune; is this real or an illusion, the child questions the man. Ultimately, James Brown was a sorcerer, a Merlin; he understood with every fiber of his being the electrifying, therapeutic wizardry, pungent power of music and motion to change one’s life; a single, simple song and dance, “dervishly” transforms the spirit and doffs the cares away.