Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 17 min .
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
Chadwick Boseman is outstanding as “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, in this warts and all film biography. Tate Taylor, best known for his The Help, directed the film from the script written by Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth and Steven Baigelman. Actor Nelsan Ellis matches Boseman scene for scene as Brown’s long-suffering second banana Bobby Byrd. This is a film that demands close attention because it jumps back and forth in time, recalling Brown’s boyhood poverty, his rise to fame as a member of the Famous Flames; his fighting back against the white-owned record company so that he gains control of his career; his entertaining the troops in Vietnam where his plane lost an engine to enemy gun fire; his preventing a riot in Boston following the murder of Dr. King; and much more—including his drinking and wife abuse and some other less savory moments. But most of all, the film celebrates the incredible artistry of a man who gave his audiences all he had, with Boseman performing those incredible gliding dance moves that added so much to James Brown’s performances.
The film begins with Brown walking through a darkened hall as we hear the nearby audience chanting his name. As he journeys toward the stage, his mind journeys back into time, not chronologically, but seemingly randomly. There is a wild scene in Atlanta in 1988 when, under the influence of drugs, he enters a meeting room at a strip mall he owns and becomes so upset that someone in an insurance seminar had used his private bathroom that he brandishes a shotgun. Terrified, the people gathered there dive to the floor. This leads to a wild chase by police and a three-year stint in prison. Then it’s the 1960s and his Vietnam trip to support the African American troops. Jump to 1939 and his mother and father were still together in an uneasy relationship. There are scenes of him later with the Famous Flames, his friend Bobby Byrd at that time the lead singer. However when a record company came calling, it was James they wanted, not the Flames, but James insisted on the Flames being included in the contract. He received little thanks, because of his taking the lead from Bobby (at the demand of the record company execs), all of the musicians but Bobby quitting.
We learn that Brown was abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), when she left her abusive husband Joe (Lennie James). She tried to take the boy with her, but Joe threatened to shoot her if she did. He abuses the boy, but this ends when he goes off to join the Army and his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) assumes custody. She makes him work but also takes him to church where he loves the singing and the dancing. Hissinging and church going did not keep him from crime, so he winds up in prison for stealing a suit.
Like Ray¸this is a film with a social justice undercurrent, one of the scenes being a flashback to James’ boyhood when a man paints numbers on the chests of James and some other black boys. They are blindfolded and a boxing glove placed on one hand while the other is tied behind their backs. While a group of wealthy white men look on and laugh, the boys are forced to slug it out. James is the smallest, so he is clobbered, but the sight and sound of a band entertaining the whites keeps up his spirit. Best of all, there is the scene in Boston following Dr. King’s death in which Brown pleads with both the audience and the over-zealous security police to calm down—which they do. However, another scene seems a bit far-fetched—at a country club pool in New Orleans an upset white couple complains that Brown and company have reserved a large section of the grounds for themselves. However, when they hear the music, they start dancing.
In another scene James refuses to knuckle under to the dictates of the white-owned record company, even though his manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) advises him to not buck the system. James proves to be a good businessman, setting up his own firm and thus keeping the profits that would have gone to “the suits.”
As James becomes famous his relationship with his band, and Bobby in particular, turns sour. He is continually late on paying them. He insults and berates them when they do not do exactly what he tells them, and accepts no creative advice from anyone. When he verbally abuses Bobby because he thinks Bobby wants to supplant him, Bobby leaves him. It will be many years before they are reconciled. James also is not a one-wife man: in one scene his first wife and new one (or mistress?) are together at the airfield as he receives his private jet plane. Actually, we see little of his family life, and what we do see, during the Christmas season, is that he was an abusive husband with a hair-trigger temper quick to strike his second wife. He suffers grief over two losses—his son from his first wife who is killed in an auto accident, and the death of Ben Bart on a golf course, apparently a heart attack victim.
The film runs for over two hours, but does not seem overly long at all. The man led such a full and useful life. Egotistical, yes, and yet giving his time to black youth while teaching them to be “black and proud.” Talking the mayor of Boston into going on with that concert after Dr. King’s assassination. The Reformer Martin Luther wrote that a Christian is a “sinning saint.” There was probably a little more of the sinner than saint in James Brown, but his great talent and his willingness to pour himself out on stage inspired his audiences, as well as a host of fellow entertainers. It is his voice that we hear, with Boseman lip-synching—but it is the actor who perfectly mimics those fantastic moves. Let’s hope we see more of Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis in future movies.
This review with questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.