Directed by Jeremy Marre
Barbican Centre - Cinema 3
June 14, 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This informative, entertaining documentary about the life and times of the late, great King of Soul, James Brown, originally made for Channel Four, features interviews with Brown himself, (with subtitles at his suggestion), as well as commentary from a range of the singer’s former girlfriends, band members, writers and friends. During the course of the film, viewers are taken along the rocky road of Brown’s life and career, with its myriad of obstacles and detours along the way, beginning with his more than humble beginnings in a one room shack in Barnwell, South Carolina during America’s depression, through the many highs and lows of his long career, which, included too many spectacular comebacks to count! Throughout the decades, from the 50’s, right onto the 80’s, Brown scored hits. Although he had began his adult years as a boxer, with his other passion being baseball, both of which, by all accounts, he was ‘tops’ at, the smiling singer confessed that, ‘Once I heard the girls scream when I sang, that was it!’
As this film illustrates so well, Brown was always philosophical – in his own way. And his own way was something he had to have. Some of his colleagues called it ‘ego’. But ego, he stated, was something he ‘had to have, in order to be free.’ Considering his early background: parents who didn’t want him, growing up in a gambling house run by an aunt, stealing as a youth so he could ‘look good at school,’ for which he did time in jail, it’s a wonder he didn’t turn out a hardened criminal. Brown, who stated that although he’d been ‘a jailbird and a drug addict,’ added, ‘some call it a crime…I call it survival.’ To his credit, Brown said he viewed those set-backs as catalysts which enabled him to change for the better.
Bobby Byrd, who’d met Brown when both were doing time in reform school in their teens, reiterated on personality clashes with the egoistic star, while, at the same time, singing the praises of his talents. Never one to waste time, Brown who’d been nicknamed, ‘Music box’ in reform school, started a gospel group with Byrd while they were inside, which eventually evolved into The Famous Flames. But, as Byrd pointed out, to many viewers’ amusement, ‘First we were The Famous Flames, then, James Brown with the Famous Flames, then, James Brown and the Famous Flames. But it was when we became James Brown and his Famous Flames that the real problems began.’
Performer Little Richard spoke of early rivalry between himself and Brown as both toured on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit.’ No one would have disputed that Richard was always the more flamboyant of the two performers, which was highlighted when the camera slid down to show his multicoloured, beaded and jewelled boots. ‘He (Brown) had to compete, Richard claimed, as footage of Brown being lead off the stage in one of his famous spangled capes was shown. Apparently Brown had ‘borrowed’ that particular idea from wrestler ‘Gorgeous George.’ Joking aside, Richard confirmed that America was ‘apartheid’ when they first started touring it, adding, ‘we couldn’t eat, we couldn’t go to the bathroom, couldn’t go to hell…We had to get changed in the car.’ A clip of Brown soulfully belting out ‘Prisoner of Love’ seemed especially apt at that point in the film.
Little did I realise when I was watching James Brown and his band giving their all at the Barbican back in 1998, or any of the other times I’d seen him and his band perform over the years, that he was ‘fining’ his musicians and singers whenever he waved his hand in their direction – $5.00 per wave. So, if he waved his hand several times, they were charged accordingly. One former singer said she’d been fined $75.00 for having ‘a wrinkle in the back of her dress.’ But as many of Brown’s idiosyncrasies as this film revealed, most commentators and fans would agree that, when it came down to it, Brown’s life was all about the music. As he himself said, ‘If people want to know who James Brown is, all they have to do is listen to my music.’ Both Brown and his long term back up vocalist and hairdresser, Martha High, rather amazingly confirmed that he would often write songs in the dressing room ‘between shows’ and then go into the studio to record them that night, when the show finished – an unorthodox, Brown-specific technique, to be sure, but never, a futile one. ‘They were always hits’, High noted, with a wry smile. Brown’s 70’s song ‘Hot Pants’ was one of many such quickly penned numbers. Martha also wisely added that Brown may have found expression difficult, if not impossible, without the help of a lot of ‘talented musicians and band directors who could interpret what he was saying.’
Fred Wesley, Brown’s trombone player extraordinaire, was factual, but funny, intermittently repeating that when it came to the singer’s songs, ‘You couldn’t write them down…They were beyond music…James Brown’s theory of music is anything that makes your body move.’ Anyone who has ever seen Brown perform live or even on video, or listened to his recordings will understand what Wesley meant. Other knowing comments came from Brown’s surrogate son, Rev. Al Sharpton, who’d assumed a close relationship with the star following the untimely death of the singer’s only son. Reverend Sharpton then highlighted the fact that it was the preachers in the black Baptists churches Brown attended who’d had the most influence on his singing style, stating that, ‘When he (Brown) screamed, he released that for all of us. James wanted to be felt.’ A clip of Brown performing in the role of a funky preacher from the 1980 film by John Sayles, The Blues Brothers, demonstrated that aspect of his singing aspect hilariously. As Sharpton put it, Brown, ‘embodied what we were all trying to say – this is what I am.’
Clips of many pivotal moments in Brown’s career, such as his 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with ‘I Feel Good,’ ‘I Can’t Stand It’ at that historically important concert in Boston in ’68, ‘This is a Man’s World’ before the US troops in Vietnam, and ‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) also from ‘68, the impact of which on America’s black community was deep, immediate and everlasting resonated. Other songs sampled in a concert setting included ‘Get on the Good Foot,’ and ‘Unity,’ among other classics.
Soul Survivor is put together so well that it would make compelling viewing for anyone, as it juxtaposes Brown himself talking about his life and career – ‘I wanted to be the whole thing,’ i.e. performer, self-promoter, music publisher.’ These insights are interspersed with comments from those who played integral roles in Brown’s life, along with extracts from his authorised biography as read by a narrator in between, sometimes on top of re-enacted footage depicting Brown’s youth, intermingled with often rare performance clips, showing the King of Soul in action, complete with spins, splits and capes. Brown’s legacy was alive and well, as it is today, in 2003, when this film was made, with DJ and ‘70’s Hip Hop originator Afrika Bambaatta, dubbed the ‘Father of Electro Funk’ and rapper and Public Enemy singer Chuck D rightfully pointing out and agreeing, in Bambaatta’s words, ‘There wouldn’t be any hip-hop without him.’ In the 80’s and 90’s, Brown was viewed as the undisputed master of ‘super heavy funk.’ As he himself said, ‘I was still called a soul singer, but I was into the rhythm. I was hearing every instrument like it was a drum. I had found out how to make it happen.’
But perhaps the most important issues Brown addressed and challenged via his music were those related to racism, and the concept of Black pride, something completely new at the time he first fearlessly advised it in ‘Say it Loud, (I’m Black and I’m Proud). Like writer Nelson George indicated, before that time, ‘black’ was more of a dubious term, perhaps one invented to appease lingering white racism. Yet Brown stood tall, advising his people to hold their heads high, thus stopping a potential confrontation at his concert in Boston during the height of fiery rioting in other cities in America, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Brown’s requests to his audience to remain calm and considerate of others, assured that, at least in Boston, peace would prevail that night, as the show was televised, and an outbreak of violence on the air would have proved detrimental to the peaceful movement for positive change that Dr. King had instigated, and lived by. Brown, whose motto was ‘Die on your feet, don’t lie on your knees,’ was truly a man who believed in giving his all to his art, and it turns out his art was humanistic, to its core. As such, the importance of the social and political impact of his contributions to the black community as well as to the evolution of music cannot be underestimated.
James Brown was a man who literally, came from nothing and determined to become a legend, starting with his first hit, ‘Please, Please, Please,’ in 1956 (the same year Elvis released ‘Hound Dog’) during his ‘Mr. Dynamite’ days, throughout the course of his long, ever-changing, ground-breaking career. Director Marre has constructed a documentary that offers, not only glimpses into the private world of the man, which is, in and of itself, certainly, more than any other documentary on this iconic star has ever managed to do. He’s also assembled a filmic timeline of his fascinating career which, serves as a gritty and powerfully compelling reminder of the many reasons why James Brown will always be remembered by those whose lives his music touched, and subsequently, uplifted, as the undisputed King of Soul.
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