As much as I love music, I’m getting tired of disappointing music bio-pics. I loved the Jersey Boys play and own many Frankie Valli records – but didn’t like the movie. I saw James Brown live at 4th & B, and own a couple of his albums. His “Live at the Apollo” is arguably the best live album ever made. Everyone should own it. Yet it’s truly hard to get behind a biopic that sugarcoats his drug abuse and abuse towards women. Sure the guy knows how to groove, and the movie captures that. Sure, Chadwick Boseman is going to get an Oscar nomination playing the Godfather of Soul and director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us entertaining concert footage (with lip-synched Brown songs). It’s just a shame he didn’t give us the complete picture.
The movie opens with that famous police chase that is only rivaled by O.J. Simpson in the Bronco. Brown shoots up his car dealership after finding out an employee has gone #2 in the bathroom. Hey…haven’t we all gone in after somebody like that and wanted to shoot up the place? But hey – he was raised in the backwoods by a father that would shoot at his mom and punch her. I guess that makes the audience sympathetic to him. So the one time we see him punch his wife off camera, we aren’t supposed to think it’s that bad. And he hardly ever does drugs. He seems to be a guy that’s just business savvy, cutting out the middle-man when it comes to promotion to make more money for himself and long time manager, played by Dan Aykroyd.
Aykroyd isn’t bad in the part, but it’s a bit distracting, as he worked with the real James Brown in both Blues Brothers movies and Doctor Detroit.
Sure, we feel horrible that as a boy, he had to steal shoes from a lynched man hanging from a tree, or that he went to jail for 10 years for merely stealing a man’s suit. We would’ve loved for him to have a normal childhood. We smile watching him enjoy the gospel church he sneaks into, and gets early inspiration from; but come on, let’s be fair. You have to show us some of the reasons Brown really did deserve 10 years in jail.
In one stint in jail, he befriends Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). He’s the frontman of the Famous Flames. Brown joins the group, sleeps with his sister, and gives them a bit more swagger. They upstage Little Richard at a small club (these are all things I’ve long ago stopped believing in biopics, because they usually make up a lot under the guise of “creative license”). Brandon Mychal Smith is fun in the few scenes he gets to play Little Richard.
When the record company decides Brown should be the headliner and the Famous Flames content to be his backing band, they show this as a decision they made against Browns wishes. Yet after watching (and reading the real stories about how much of a taskmaster Brown was), you know that probably wasn’t the case. It wouldn’t be the first time band members get ticked at him.
The Ray Charles movie sugar coated all of his illegitimate children (he had 12 kids total), but they didn’t shy away from the tough moments, even if it made him less likable. For Taylor to leave out the abhorrent behavior Brown exhibited, would be like leaving out the fact that Ray Charles was blind.
I’m not sure why they never felt the need to cover Brown’s various ex-wives, ex-bandmates (some who would find success with Parliament-Funkadelic), and extensive drug use. The way Taylor sugarcoats the domestic abuse is unforgivable.
ESPN’s great sportscaster Stephen A. Smith just got suspended for implying that sometimes women can bring on the abuse by saying or doing the wrong thing to an angry man. Yet isn’t this filmmaker doing the same thing, when one of the two times he shows domestic violence, it becomes some sort of foreplay?
I guess when we see long-time bandmates discussing why they need to take a backseat to the greatness of Brown, we as an audience are supposed to do the same. When somebody is an incredible talent, we’re supposed to look past the jerky personality. I understand it’s easier to make a movie about Babe Ruth, where you can show him drinking and carousing, but still make him a likable character. It’s a lot harder when somebody smokes crack, shoots at people, and beats women. Well if you aren’t up for the challenge, stick to making movies like The Help. Speaking of which, we get three cast members from The Help to help tell the story.
Viola Davis is great as the mother who abandons Brown, and Octavia Spencer is okay as the madam of a brothel that shows some kindness to the boy that comes to live with her. Allison Janney is relegated to two quick scenes. She is shown to be a horrible racist, but somebody that can still get down once she hears his wicked groove in Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (who can blame her, the song’s amazing).
If the stories the movie covers are true – we do learn a few fascinating things. Brown is in a plane that’s shot down while flying over to entertain troops in Vietnam. He upstages The Rolling Stones at the same venue (Mick Jagger was one of the producers of this film).
It would’ve been a better picture if we saw more of Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and Bobby Byrd (Ellis), and if some of the scenes didn’t drag on for too long (the movie was 2 hours and 15 minutes); and speeding up the camera to show clouds in fast motion – dude, this isn’t your college film project?
Tate Taylor captures the concert footage as if he’s a fan dancing in the front row. As a complete film about a musical genius and despicable human being – he’s the guy in the back that couldn’t see the show all that well.
Will you be entertained? You bet. Although like most of my musical heroes, if the movie can’t do them justice, I’ll stick to putting on my vinyl of Live at the Apollo or Sex Machine.
This gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.
Side note: Here’s my tale of the tape. A few of the facts the filmmaker left out: nine kids, three ex-wives, over 10 reports of domestic violence (including one in which he hit a woman with a lead pipe), assaulting a police officer, PCP use, and threatening a repair man with a steak knife. Yet the guy could do the splits and belt out It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World. And if a man can beat women constantly and have a movie glorify his accomplishments…perhaps he was right.
THIS JUST IN: The character Dan Akyroyd played, the long-time manager…his son is doing interviews about all the inaccuracies in the film. One being Brown shoveling dirt on the grave. Brown, in fact, didn’t show up at his managers funeral. Also, it was the manager that came up with those cost cutting moves to promote the concerts, not Brown. So, not only does the movie glorify a guy who beat women and did drugs, but it shows him as being more business savvy. Why does Hollywood continue to do this?