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The James Brown Biopic Honors Pioneers of Flamboyance

By Armond White

What makes Get On Up, the James Brown biopic in theaters August 1, the most immediately enjoyable movie of the year has everything to do with Brown’s powerful, exultant, still-radical music—and the attitude that produced it.

That attitude is epitomized in a scene during the early 1950s when young, pre-“Godfather of Soul” James (played by Chadwick Boseman) meets his rock and roll forerunner Little Richard Penniman (Brandon Mychal Smith). There they are: Two Georgia boys on their way to pop music immortality but first they have to figure out how to get there—an itinerary that overlaps with the gay experience: 1) Lift themselves above the clearly-shown social misery of the Jim Crow era. 2) Define American racism as the tricky obstacle it is. 3) Perfect their artistry as an expression of their personalities.

Boseman and Smith are intense onstage (a rivalry scene with Brown and group jumping in unison as they perform “Caldonia” is delirious) and vivid even in conversation. Recognizing each other’s talent and sensuality, their confab opens up emotional possibilities as surely as their music did. Smith’s bold seduction stops the show. He gives Little Richard’s take-me-as-I-am elegance a fierceness that Brown looks at and approves. They’re simpatico and this brotherly rapport would ultimately reveal itself in stage style so fabulous the world was helpless to concede.

Style as a means of rebellion is a gay axiom (true, whether in drag balls or Brown’s definitions of “Funk”) and it’s proven when Brown finances his own legendary Live at the Apollo album: He insists on wearing “a sapphire suit” and that his band dress in “purple brocade.” Brown’s own eyes widen at the pioneering vision—as if already sees Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Prince.

These great musicians (cultural scholar William T. Lhamon winked that Little Richard’s “talent was promiscuous”) also represent a fortuitous moment in the history of American sexual identity. Their music urged sexual frankness—from a time when the term “rock and roll” was a widely understood synonym for sex and American pop music, officially segregated, was also unstoppably cross-fertilizing. Brown and Little’s erotic richness (songs like “Tutti-Frutti” and “Get on Up (I Feel Like a Sex Machine)”) influenced their look and behavior.

This film shows the pre-Civil Rights Era fad of black men “processing” their hair to relax kinks into wavy or straight tresses that allowed outrageous vanity—pompadours to rival female couture. There’s a reason hairdressers also referred to themselves as estheticians and Brown and Little Richard brought that skill and proud self-regard out of the shadows of black American life and above ground. (Hairstyles are part of the film’s delight.) Brown would name his early band The Famous Flames, partly acknowledging the black and gay subculture where creativity thrived despite the deprivations of social bigotry.

Get On Up’s director Tate Taylor understands this esthetic revolution, equating it with women’s desperate longing to realize themselves, an insight familiar from gay Hollywood director George Cukor and what used to be called “women’s pictures”—a talent Taylor updates (abominably in The Help but movingly here where Octavia Butler, Jill Scott, Tika Sumpter and Viola Davis all hit peak). Taylor flips that insight into Brown and Little Richard’s flaming fearlessness. When Little Richard warns Brown “the devil’s gonna come to you but he won’t be red, he’ll be white”—the audacity of his business and existential advice shows social and political awareness perhaps only a white Southerner like Taylor would dare.

In Get On Up it isn’t just James Brown and Little Richard’s music that is explosive.

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