With Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Butler, Dan Ackroyd.
James Brown had many nicknames, and each one gets a chapter in this artfully edited, beautifully acted biography starring Chadwick Boseman. Whether you are a huge fan of Brown’s hypnotic dance moves and melodramatic fainting, you can not deny the man his power, his originality, his aura.
His childhood was horrible, seeped in pain and abandonment. He watched his parents fight each other in murderous ways, then his mother flee the danger of her marriage. Years later, she will reappear once he is successful, and try as he might to resist her appeal, he is a son first.
Watching the abuse of his father may be why he became an abuser himself. It is upsetting to witness the sudden beating of his second wife, DeeDee, who appears as a pleasant agreeable helpmate. His first wife, Velma, when handing off their children when DeeDee is a new bride, answers James’ question of “Do you need anything?” “I’ll be making a nice long list.” This is an example of the throwaway lines that litter the screenplay, always lending depth to the story.
Scenes of gospel music, almost hallucinatory in their power, hint at how Brown’s work evolved. Most essential is a meeting with Little Richard who asks the question, “What happened to you James Brown?” as he begins his career as a recording artist. Brandon Mychal Smith channels the inner strangeness of Little Richard in their scene. Other actors who bring great compassion to their roles are Octavia Butler as James’ aunt Honey and Viola Davis as his mother. Ben Bart, his manager (Dan Ackroyd), stands in as a surrogate father, and his absence hints at how Brown’s finances became chaotic.
Even though he married four times, James Brown was closest to his friend, Bobby Byrd, who stood by him even when it seemed mad to do so.
I am now a Chadwick Boseman fan, and look forward to Tate Taylor’s next film.