Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Godfather of Soul & The "Jersey Boys" Head To The Multiplex in Two New Films

Since the successful release of Ray (2004), the biography of Ray Charles, which starred Jamie Foxx, the musical bio-pic has come back into vogue, and two new releases continue the trend. James Brown was one of the most powerful, innovative performers to ever grace a stage. The “Godfather of Soul” helped bring funk into the mainstream, and has inspired countless other artists, including Michael Jackson, Prince & Mick Jagger. Get On Up (2014) tells the story of Brown’s life, and attempts to give us some insight into this legendary musician. The film moves back & forth in time, taking us to some of the high points (and low points) of Brown’s career, from his beginnings with the group The Famous Flames, to his worldwide success as a soul/funk/R&B superstar, scoring hits with songs like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in 42), is amazing as Brown. He’s got the wild, yet graceful athleticism of Brown’s stage performances down pat, and it’s not mere mimicry. He inhabits the role – right down to Brown’s speech patterns & the way he walks. It’s an astonishing performance. There’s an excellent supporting cast including Viola Davis as Brown’s mother, and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, the soul icon's musical collaborator & closest friend, who gets pushed to the background in Brown’s rise to the top. Some of the female roles in the film are too thin & lightly sketched, but all of the actors are solid in their roles. The musical sequences, including some of Brown’s most famous songs & musical moments, are fantastic. Particularly interesting are the recreations of his triumphant 1962 concert at the Apollo Theatre (which became a classic live album) and his 1964 appearance at the multi-artist concert The T.A.M.I Show, where he blew his fellow acts (including The Rolling Stones) off the stage with an electric performance.

The movie does jump around in time a little bit too much, sometimes moving back to complete a flashback scene we saw the first part of earlier in the film. And while the movie tries to give us a good overview of Brown’s life & career, balancing the story of Brown's successes with a look at his dark side, it skims over some of his issues with drugs & violence. But Boseman’s performance & the great music make this a must see for music fans. The film was directed by Tate Taylor, and written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth. Mick Jagger & Brian Grazer were two of the film’s producers; in fact, Jagger helped shepherd the project's journey to the screen. The movie is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

The Broadway musical Jersey Boys has been a major success since it opened in 2005. A movie version of the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons has been in the works for a while (Jon Favreau was once slated to helm the project) but it finally came to fruition with Clint Eastwood directing. The film adapts some of the play’s structure, with the characters addressing the audience as the tale of the group’s early years unfolds. We see the beginnings of the band as Frankie forms the group with his friend, guitarist Tommy DeVito, keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio & bass player Nick Massi. While the group goes on to become one of the biggest selling acts of the 60s, personal conflicts & internal strife derail them at the height of their success. The movie features John Lloyd Young as Valli, Vincent Piazza as DeVito,  Erich Bergen as Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Massi. The screenplay is by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, who wrote the original Broadway show.

While the movie is a musical, there’s a bit less focus on the music at times than you’d expect, though there are sequences depicting performances of some of the band's biggest hits. One thing that’s missing is a larger sense of the group’s success amid the other pop/rock groups of the 60s. There’s more of an emphasis on the dark side of the group’s rise to fame. It’s a very internalized story that keeps its sights on the group's dynamics, treating them like a family. The actors do a great job bringing these musical icons to life. Lloyd Young (who originated the role of Valli on Broadway) & Bergen as Gaudio stand out in the talented cast, and Christopher Walken shines in a supporting role as a mobster who helps the group get its start. I haven’t seen the play, though people who have tell me there’s more music, and a bit less less focus on the group’s downfall. But maybe the darker side of the story is what drew Eastwood (who also directed the Charlie Parker bio-pic Bird) to the project.

Like many film biographies, the movie is lighter on the details of the groups’ later years, and quickly sketches their eventual comeback, ending with the band's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Still, it’s an interesting story, and you’ll probably learn a lot about the The Four Seasons that you didn’t know before, including the group’s friendship with a young guy named Joe Pesci. Of course, there are also all those great songs on the soundtrack, including “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” among others. In fact, the film’s at its best when showing the guys working on their music with producer Bob Crewe, who contributed a great deal to the group’s success. While you might not think of Eastwood as the first choice to direct a musical, he does a decent job, even though the film still somewhat betrays its stage origins. If you’re a fan of the The Four Seasons & their music, Jersey Boys is worth a look. The film has just about finished its run in theaters, but a video release should be announced soon. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

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