Opening 9 Oct 2014
Writing credits: Steve Gaigelman, Jez Butterworth, John Butterworth, Tate Taylor
Principal actors: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James
Director Tate Taylor has achieved the impossible: an all-encompassing, fantastic film about the life of the Godfather of Soul, singer James Brown. Chadwick Boseman plays Brown perfectly from age 16 to about 63. He never falls out of character; he says, “I wanted my performance to be an interpretation, not an imitation.”
James Brown was born in 1933 and grew up in a shack in Georgia, USA. His mother abandoned him when he was four years old. Three people influenced his road to success, something he never doubted he would achieve. His Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) took him into her home in Augusta, Georgia. He was well on the way to a life of crime, when Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) got him out of jail, invited him into his family and introduced him to his first group of musicians, The Famous Flames, which led to their first hit “Please, Please, Please” in 1956. Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) was his hard-put manager for many years. Brown tells his own story in flash-back form over the years 1988, 1968, 1939, 1964, 1949, 1971 and so on up to 1993. We learn about his decision to produce his own album (after naysayers denied support) of a live concert at the Apollo Theater in New York City – a huge success. He refused to cancel his concert in Boston after the murder of Martin Luther King, saying that it’s better to have black people united at his concert than creating havoc demonstrating on the streets. He performs for the troupes in Viet Nam and visits the White House. He reverts to violence, causes his band to quit, is a perfectionist and records his concerts in order to correct every mistake. Women are not equal; he says, “Women won’t stop a man from doing what he is supposed to do.” Even a song “This is a Man’s World” expresses this opinion. He has influenced more pop, jazz, reggae, and rap musicians than any other in his field, not only through music, but through his dancing, e.g., Michael Jackson.
The film shows all of this and much more. Simply the original songs from Brown (over 20 are in the film) are worth a ticket – what other chance do you have to experience a Brown concert? The costumes and wigs are perfect. Many actors in small parts add to the excellence such as Brandon Smith as singer Little Richard or Viola Davis as his irresponsible, selfish mother Susie. One of the producers is Mick Jagger of The Rollings Stones, a colleague and friend throughout Brown’s life. It was filmed almost exclusively in Mississippi, USA. Definitely see this film, especially if you saw B.B. King – the Life of Riley or Jersey Boys (same topic but totally different). You might, for once, be grateful for subtitles. A genius in many ways, enunciation was not Brown’s strong point, so that subtitles might clear up some misunderstandings. (Becky Tan)