Get On Up and the Great Man Theory of Funk

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 31 2014 11:44 PM

The Great Man Theory of Funk

Get On Up shows us James Brown the unstoppable personality, but skimps on James Brown the musician.

James Brown.
James Brown performing at the Olympia Hall in Paris in 1971.

Photo courtesy of AFP/Getty Images

Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s biopic about the great R&B singer James Brown, is a portrait of a performer whose monumental presence and raging ego drove him from a childhood of desperate poverty all the way to the top, and then over the top. Aided by an electric performance by Chadwick Boseman, the film nails Brown’s mastery of the stage and the microphone, and the way he immediately dominated every space he entered. In an early scene, Brown and his band are in Vietnam in 1968, on their way to perform for American troops; the plane is under fire, the group is freaking out, and Brown’s up in the cockpit, intently chattering away at the pilot, as if nothing could possibly be more important than whatever’s on his mind. It’s a sharp portrait of Brown’s undeniable egomania.

But Brown earned every bit of his self-regard, and the film’s great failure is that it doesn’t show us how. Treating Brown’s personality as the interesting thing about him means that Taylor doesn’t end up saying much about Brown’s music, the fascinating way it was made, or the colossal effect it had on the culture around it. As far as Get On Up is concerned, James Brown was an unstoppable personality more than he was a musician; the film suffers from the Great Man theory of funk.

Brown’s songs, in fact, were collaborative and process-based, more than any other pop star’s work: Both on record and on stage, Brown directed and instructed the band, restructuring arrangements on the fly. (See, for instance, the magnificent moment in “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” when Brown decides mid-take to throw in an a cappella breakdown, explains what’s going on to the musicians, and calls out to engineer Ron Lenhoff: “Keep the tape running, Ron!”)

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Brown’s best records relied on specific bandleaders and instrumentalists; at his shows, his band played on stage without him as well as with him. He contributed to records by innumerable members of his revue and released them on his own labels. He did his best to build his comrades up as stars, too, as long as they didn’t outshine him. In Get On Up, though, there’s no sense that anyone else’s voice mattered to him. Brown’s right-hand man and backup singer Bobby Byrd (played as a hapless second banana by True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis) morosely explains that James is a genius whose coattails he’s lucky enough to ride, and that he himself wasn’t meant to be a frontman. The Byrd who had a decadelong string of R&B hits with Brown backing him up—the best-remembered is “I Know You Got Soul”—might have disagreed.

In one scene, Brown and his band are rehearsing “Cold Sweat,” his epochal 1967 single; he’s got an idea for how it should work, and his band is complaining that it won’t be “musical.” Brown browbeats them into playing what he’s got in mind, explaining that they should treat all of their instruments as drums, and suddenly the song comes together. But “Cold Sweat” wouldn’t have been what it was without bandleader (and co-writer) Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis; played here by Tariq Trotter of the Roots, he’s a put-upon sideman, rather than the brilliant arranger whose contributions Brown valued so highly that he often shouted him out by name on his records.

The movie’s era-hopping structure (in its first few scenes, it bounds from 1988 to 1968 to 1939 to 1964) keeps it lively, but its scrambled chronology and far-too-frequent flashbacks to Brown’s miserable childhood obscure the constant musical evolution that kept him artistically vital for the first few decades of his career. Taylor only offers one clear example of how radically Brown’s music changed over time: We see him singing “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in the 1965 movie Ski Party, wearing a dorky sweater and a big, fake smile while square white teenagers clap along—and then, for a few seconds, we get a flash of Brown sweatily yelping the funked-up version of the song that he was playing in the mid-’70s.

“Cold Sweat” and “Mother Popcorn” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “The Payback” and Brown’s scores of other hits were revolutionary in the way they foregrounded rhythm and groove. Every time Brown dropped a new single, everyone else raced to catch up: He was the pleading rasper of “Try Me,” the jazzy Vegas hipster of “Ain’t That a Groove,” the coffee-nerved obsessive of “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me.”

In the 1970s—a period that Taylor skips over almost entirely—Brown kept reinventing himself; already an old man in a young man’s game, he turned his age to his advantage as “The Godfather of Soul.” He slowed down his pace to a murderous saunter on “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”; he bounced and whooped over trickier intersecting rhythms than ever before on “Get on the Good Foot.” And he (and bandleader Fred Wesley) honed his group to the point where great music could even happen accidentally. 1971’s “Escape-Ism” is an unpremeditated jam recorded while the band was warming up for a Bobby Byrd recording session (“Byrd got a—I mean—Byrd got a outtasite tune comin’ up,” Brown comments.) It became a top 10 R&B hit, and joined his live repertoire, dissonant horn squeal and all.

The innovations of Brown’s music have reverberated for the past half-century. Pee Wee Ellis has talked about how “Cold Sweat”—which vamps on a single chord for most of its duration—was partly inspired by Miles Davis’ “So What”; a few years later, Davis’ new music was very clearly drawing on Brown’s. Guitarist Jimmy Nolen’s clipped “chicken scratch” tone on Brown’s recordings in the latter half of the ’60s became the standard for funk and, later, disco guitar. When the earliest hip-hop DJs looked for drum breaks to loop, they searched Brown’s old singles: Clyde Stubblefield’s indelible drum solo from Brown’s “Funky Drummer” has been sampled on upwards of 800 other tracks.

None of that is even implied by Get On Up. What Taylor offers instead is a story of Brown as a blessed genius who struggled to overcome the damage his childhood inflicted on him through pure self-regard and effort, and was ultimately overcome by it anyway. It’s a version of the grand human tragedy of the “hardest working man in show business” that acknowledges how complicated his life was, but not how complicated his art was.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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