Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on Cineplex.com looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil looks at the James Brown biopic Get On Up.
James Brown finally got the biopic treatment this weekend with the release of Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman as The Godfather of Soul himself.
What’s most intriguing about the cinematic treatment of Brown’s life – both on- and off-screen – is that so much of it took place in front of a camera. In fact, Elvis Presley aside, it’s hard to think of a more physical performer that spent so much time being captured on film in the early days of the rock n’ roll/rhythm and blues era.
Brown’s popularity rose and sustained itself for so long that it’s often easy to forget that while he was a fixture well into his more funk-driven days of the 1970s alongside the likes of George Clinton, he got his start as a contemporary of Little Richard.
By time 1964 rolled around and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were making their respective American television debuts, Brown had already captured his legendary live performance on wax in the form of “Live at the Apollo” and absolutely stole the show from the Stones (not to mention topping a now-iconic Beach Boys performance) at the T.A.M.I. Show.
That particular moment gets a scene of its own in Get On Up, but it was immortalized a second time more than 20 years ago in Alan Parker’s The Commitments.
Educating his fledgling band on the ins and outs of soul music Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) shows the T.A.M.I. clip prompting responses like: “He’s hurt, look, they’re helping him off,” and “What’ll they do now? Bring on a substitute?” before proclaiming: “That’s what you’ve got to measure up to, lads.”
The infamous TV performances wouldn’t be Brown’s only spell on screen, as he would use another huge moment in the history of soul to once again shine in the spotlight. In the same way he brought soul to Vietnam as part of USO missions in the late 1960s, Brown piggybacked on 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, headlining the Zaire 74 concert alongside the likes of Bill Withers, B.B. King, and The Spinners.
Like many of Brown’s career highlights, the cameras were once again rolling and the whole thing was caught on film, winding up decades later as key moments in a pair of documentaries. First came the Academy Award-winning 1996 doc When We Were Kings, which followed the fight and Ali’s journey through the hearts and minds of Africa. In 2008, however, the concert itself got feature treatment with the doc feature, Soul Power.
Over his five decades in the limelight, Brown and his music found their way into hundreds of features. Brown himself would show up in everything from the aforementioned docs to The Blues Brothers to Rocky IV, while his music would power everything from Quadrophenia to Good Morning, Vietnam to Django Unchained.
Of course, there’s also the mark Brown would leave on Eddie Murphy’s career (Warning: the link is a bit NSFW), which may be another article in and of itself.
And it’s in handling Brown’s legacy that Get On Up director Tate Taylor got creative. In casting key roles surrounding the zenith of Brown’s popularity, Taylor reached to some of the musicians upon whom Brown’s music had arguably the greatest influence.
Brown’s second wife, DeeDee, is portrayed by neo-soul goddess Jill Scott. Prominent band members Pee Wee Ellis and Nafloyd Scott are portrayed by Tariq Trotter (better known as Black Thought, lead MC of The Roots) and Aloe Blacc, respectively.
While two of the three had previous cinematic credits to their resume (Blacc makes his cinematic debut) Taylor nods in the direction Brown helped carry popular music in the filmmaking process itself because, to paraphrase a line Brown drops in the film, “You may not own my records, but I am in the ones you own.”
With that in mind, here is a stunning live performance from Get On Up stars Black Thought (and, of course, The Roots) and Scott (oh yeah, and Erykah Badu!) from Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.