James Brown: James Brown: Soul Survivor [DVD]

[11 April 2004]

By Katie Zerwas

Can the Godfather Survive His Bad Self?

The Godfather of Soul is an enigmatic figure shrouded in myth, more legend than man. Most are aware of the indelible mark he has left on popular music, and few can ignore the recent scandals surrounding his personal life and finances. But, who is the real James Brown? This is the question the PBS film, James Brown: Soul Survivor seeks to answer. The film, now released on DVD, features interviews with key music figures and those close to James Brown as well as interviews with the legend himself. It pieces together rare concert footage and recordings and seeks to view his life in terms of the hardships he and other blacks had to endure. Although a bit dry at times, and a little one-sided at others, the film is an accurate and honest portrayal of the man who made music history and forever changed popular culture in surprising ways.

For fans of James Brown, which is to say, for fans of gospel, soul, funk and hip-hop, James Brown: Soul Survivor is a must-see DVD. Not only does the film feature Brown’s more popular songs and performances but it also features rare concert footage and recordings that most are likely to never have seen before, thus giving a comprehensive look at the musical roots and history of the Godfather of Soul. In addition to exploring his past, the film also addresses Brown’s current work, showcasing a recent performance at the House of Blues and candid footage of Brown and the band in rehearsal. The film also features interviews from important figures in music from Bobby Byrd to Al Sharpton and Chuck D as well as music scholars. These interviews form the foundation of the film’s fascinating and informative narrative, and offers an intimate view of James Brown’s life and legendary status.

From an academic perspective, this film is an excellent tool to help build connections between the development of various styles of music and the relationship between popular music forms and popular culture. The film uses the life of James Brown as a sort of allegory for the progression of black music and the advancement of black culture in the United States. The perspectives articulated by political leaders and scholars adds a broad historical dimension to the personal life and career of Brown that lends itself to a greater understanding of race relations in this country over the last seventy years. The film also makes explicit the themes of poverty, disenfranchisement, education, political oppression, war and civil rights that have greatly influenced Brown’s life and music from his obsession with wealth, his promotion of education for children, as well as the politics in his music and his role as a leader in the black community.

The film also treats the darker aspects of James Brown’s life in a manner that is respectful and for the most part fair. Rather than taking sides or attempting to justify his occasionally erratic behavior, the filmmakers focus on the facts surrounding his various run-ins with the law. The result is a portrayal of Brown that sees him as a victim of a long history of poverty and psychological stress, while not entirely relieving him of his burden of guilt. The image conveyed is one of a man of great strength, but also unflappable hubris. His tragedies are contrasted with his mistakes as well as his successes, and when placed in the larger socio-political scene one gleans a better understanding not only of this individual life, but also of the collective tragedies and triumphs of black culture.

That said, the prevailing attitude of the film is somewhat apologetic, and questions remain regarding the victims of his occasionally abusive and tyrannical behavior. Conspiracy theories are passed of as fact, and few contradictory perspectives are offered. While the film rightly seeks to exalt Brown’s position in the music world and as an important and often over-looked leader, it shies away from presenting information that might tarnish this image. A more balanced look at the life of James Brown may have better accomplished the task of making him appear more human, albeit at the expense of ruining the legend.

Moreover, the decidedly academic posture of the film makes it less palatable for the casual viewer. James Brown: Soul Survivor is not family movie night material, unless your family’s idea of a good time is educational television accompanied by nutritional snacks and a rigorous discussion of the principles of ethnomusicology. The film revolves around a factual discussion of James Brown and the socio-political factors surrounding his life, and aside from the occasional pans of photos and grainy file-footage the only action in the film is found in the cheaply produced and awkwardly performed re-enactments. In short, the film mainly appeals to those with a real interest in the music and events presented. As a candid and honest portrayal of the life of James Brown, however, the film is an important work that draws crucial yet often missed connections between various popular and black music forms and between music and politics. The film illuminates the important role Brown had to play as both a musical innovator and a black political and community leader. For those interested in expanding their understanding of black music and popular culture, or simply for fans of James Brown’s music, this DVD is an excellent resource.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/brownjames-souldvd/