24 October 2014
You've probably heard of him. They called him "Mr. Dynamite," "The Godfather of Soul," "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." James Brown was a legend in his own lifetime, and continues to inform and inspire our most popular musical artists today. But who was the man behind those signature moves?
In the new film Get On Up, we zip back and forth through the contrasting chapters of the singer's extraordinary story. Born dirt-poor in South Carolina in the middle of the Great Depression in 1933, young James (Chadwick Boseman) survives a life of abandonment, abuse, reform school and jail. His mother (Viola Davis) leaves the family, and only his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) really believes in him. Nobody ever taughthim the rules - so he is destined from the start to break them.
Along the way, he channels life's hard knocks into a unique and thrilling musical sound. A chance meeting with gospel singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) leads to a friendship and collaboration that will last a lifetime. Get On Up chronicles James Brown's meteoric rise from playing with his first band, The Famous Flames, to eventually becoming one of the most influential performers to ever hit the stage of popular music.
How do you tell the story of a life? This must have been the challenge facing the filmmakers as they set about bringing James Brown's tale to the screen, sifting through the facts to find something that captured the essence of the man. It's also the challenge faced by the character of James himself, as portrayed in the film. His story appears to be hopeless as a child, characterised by horrible neglect and deprivation; it's only by turning this on its head, spinning a different tale about who he is and what he's worth, that James manages to overcome his circumstances.
The film emphasises the showman's capacity for reinvention, giving us scenes where James directly addresses the camera, boldly constructing his own legend for the audience. Where does this boldness come from? In part, it's instilled in him by his Aunt Honey, who takes care of the young James and believes that he has an extraordinary destiny. "You're special," she tells him. "One day, everybody's gonna know your name." The power that her words wield is startling, we're reminded how even the smallest encouragements can create freedom and release for people, opening up a more hopeful future.
It also seems that defiance and resilience are simply part of James's make-up: he knows deep down that he doesn't have to dance to the world's tune. Get On Up is a dynamic portrait of the freedom we gain when we refuse to be defined by where we come from, or by what the world says about our potential.
But there are dangers for James as he takes ownership of his story in this way. The film shows how frequently he falls from the tightrope between reclaiming his dignity and destructively self-aggrandising. Sometimes, the story he chooses to tell about himself is one in which he's the only person who matters. "I look after James Brown," he says, in one scene. "No-one else help me. No-one else." He dismisses and hurts the people who love him, and who've helped him find success – including his wife, and his enduringly patient best friend Bobby Byrd.
James Brown could probably claim to be a self-made man with more legitimacy than most people. But living his life as a one-man show threatens to destroy him on the inside. Our successes may not be as soaring as his, nor our failures as dramatic, but we're all prone to making ourselves the centre of our universe. If the tale of our lives is only ever told by us, about us, we may find that we've gone wildly off-course.
Can a solo act ever have real soul? Perhaps this powerful film might cause us all to think about our need for a new story: one which restores our worth not by setting us apart from everybody else, but by putting us back into right relationships.Get On Up is released in cinemas on 21 November.
Sophie Lister is a writer with Damaris. For free community resources based on the film, see damaris.org/getonup