The hardest working man in show business, James Brown, will be portrayed in Get On Up by Chadwick Boseman with shows opening last Friday. Boseman played Jackie Robinson in 42 last year, but this was a whole new ballgame. Producer Mick Jagger explained he was “never in a rock band, never a hip-hop artist” and yet as fellow actor Nelsan Ellis says, “This is not Chad anymore. This is James Brown.”
Brown was born during the Great Depression in a cabin in the woods of South Carolina. His parents split up when he was four, and he did not see his mom again for 20 years. Brown spent lonely hours in the woods while his father worked hard to provide a living with only a second grade education.
At 15, and in the seventh grade, Brown was arrested after he began stealing and breaking into cars with a local gang. He was ordered to serve from eight to 16 years in jail. However, he was released at 19 when he wrote the parole board, “All I want is a chance. I want to get out and sing for the Lord.”
Brown had a rocky start with bands he had organized, and went through a divorce before he performed at the Apollo Theatre in New York, where he met his mom again. Get On Up illustrates James Brown as the hardest working man in show business performing 350 nights out of the year. Sometimes he was singing and dancing so hard that he lost seven pounds in one night. Once, when he collapsed during an Apollo performance, he was diagnosed with low-salt syndrome. He had actually sweated it all out. Afterward, he had to take an IV when he became too exhausted. He definitely put all his energy into making music.
Al Sharpton, who says Brown took him in as a son, declared Boseman captured James Brown’s “determination, his unstoppable independence.” He stated the film shows what drove Brown, and one feels the pain he lived with. As Sharpton says, “James Brown started at minus 100. Yet he changed the rhythm of the world.” Once Brown told Sharpton, “I took the rhythm of the backwoods churches and brought it to the world.”
Producer Mick Jagger, now 71, confessed he copied many of Brown’s dance moves. Brown was known as Soul Brother Number One because he always gave his best. Jagger says Brown “really worked his butt off” because he wanted to be in control of his own destiny. Brown not only influenced the Rolling Stones, but also Michael Jackson and Prince, who once lay on the floor backstage to watch Brown’s feet.
Brown is remembered as a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. However, he also encouraged education. When he wrote Don’t Be a Dropout he said, “Without an education, you might as well be dead.” As a Republican, he worked with George W. Bush to promote education, personally giving out 500 scholarships for college for $500 at his shows, and using radio stations he had purchased to train African Americans in advertising, management, and programming.
Brown has not lived without controversy. When he toured Vietnam singing America is My Home, it angered African Americans, who felt he had abandoned them in their struggle for civil rights. When he wrote I’m Black and I’m Proud, he angered whites, who felt the song was a cry for more violence.
Brown was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is considered the most popular black musician of all time with 114 charted singles. The hardest working man in show business and his relentless work ethic have been demonstrated in Get On Up through Boseman’s portrayal of James Brown. As Brown himself said in a speech given during the Washington D.C. riots in 1968, “Be ready. Be qualified. Own something. That’s black power.”
By Laurie Stilwell