“The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.”
When people think of James Brown, they think of his unforgettable charisma behind the mic and on the stage. Starting late next month, the Film Society will highlight yet another area within his legacy: film. Whether he’s Reverend James in The Blues Brothers or belting out “Living in America” in Rocky IV, James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business puts Brown’s talent as singer, actor, composer, and overall performer on display through his iconic work on the big screen. The film series will feature, highlight, and celebrate the musical and visual force of nature that James Brown was via both signature moments on film and in musical performances that have rarely been seen on the big screen—or at all. Sit back and groove as James Brown gets you feelin’ good in this visual and auditory feast of music in film.
James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business will include Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation classic Black Caesar (1973), featuring Brown’s furious theme song; Brown’s dynamic opening performance of “Living in America” which set the tone for Sylvester Stallone’s over-the-top USA rah-rah spectacle Rocky IV (1985); his “preaching to the choir” and leading it in John Landis’s sprawling comedy epic The Blues Brothers (1980); his scratch-heavy, bongo-driven funk set from Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s documentary Soul Power (2008) about the Zaire ’74 music festival; and what is arguably, the series’ crowning jewel—Brown’s singular and endurance-defying performance (18 minutes long) where he shows fellow guests Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, and notably Mick Jagger with The Rolling Stones how it’s done on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).
“It feels quite appropriate to dedicate our Cinematheque programming over Labor Day weekend to a performer such as James Brown, who, in addition to being arguably the 20th century’s most enduringly relevant musician, always placed the notion of ‘work’ at the heart of his artistry,” said FSLC Programing Coordinator Dan Sullivan, who programmed the series. “The films in which he appeared, the films he scored, and the films that documented his athletic and impassioned on-stage performances cohere to yield a transfixing portrait of an artist who was both unapologetically political and incomparably funky. Baby baby baby, baby baby baby…”
James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Film runs August 29 – September 1. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, August 7. Special discount for Labor Day Weekend! Single screening tickets only $10; $7 for Students, Seniors (62+) and Film Society Members. Visit www.filmlinc.com for additional information.
Films, Schedules, and Descriptions follow:
Larry Cohen, USA, 1973, 35mm, 87m
“I was born in New York City on a Monday…” This furious, low-budget crime picture dates from the golden age of Blaxploitation, when the genre was mining Hollywood’s past for stock narratives that could be given new and politically radical resonances. Black Caesar reworks the Hollywood gangster film, but the story—a poor black shoeshine boy takes out a corrupt mob boss, only to accept the white man’s power structures when he himself gains control—strikes a closer and more sensitive nerve. By the time Brown recorded the movie’s soundtrack, including the classic “Down and Out in New York City,” his music was evolving into an early and hugely influential form of funk, and its jumpy, aggressive rhythms meld seamlessly with the film’s claustrophobic urban setting.
August 29, 8:30pm
August 30, 6:30pm
The Blues Brothers
John Landis, USA, 1980, 35mm, 133m
The Blues Brothers—Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, at the height of their comedic and dramatic powers—were a pair of SNL characters before they were a band, and a band before they were a pair of film heroes. (Their first album was released in 1978.) But their big-screen debut, a trigger-happy action odyssey in which the two brothers, one fresh out of jail, flee Nazis, cops, and country singers in an attempt to put on one great show, remains their crowning achievement, partly thanks to its scene-stealing musical cameos: Aretha Franklin as the singing proprietress of a soul-food restaurant; Ray Charles as a music-store owner; and Brown—whom the movie’s success temporarily helped lift out of a professional slump—as the roof-raising leader of a gospel choir.
August 30, 8:30pm
September 1, 3:30pm
James Brown Performance Compilation
Digital projection, approx. 75m
A truly one-of-a-kind assortment of clips of the Godfather of Soul, on stage and in his element. Spanning multiple periods of his career and featuring invaluable footage of Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show and Soul Street, this selection finds Mr. Dynamite workin’ it as only he could. Archival footage courtesy of Historic Films Archives and Joe Lauro.
August 31, 4:30pm & 9:00pm
Sylvester Stallone, USA, 1985, 35mm, 91m
The Cold War was nearing the end of its Reagan-era upsurge in 1985, when Sylvester Stallone made this theatrical, circus-like, and unabashedly entertaining vision of U.S.-Soviet relations at their most cartoonishly divided. The plot of Rocky IV centers on the Italian Stallion’s revenge match against the impassive Russian “mountain of muscle” Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, in his breakout role) after the latter kills his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring. But the highlight is Creed’s entrance near the start of the film, with James Brown standing in the flesh at the front of the ring as the fight’s master of ceremonies.
September 1, 1:15pm & 6:00pm
Alan Rafkin, USA, 1965, 35mm, 90m
“Are you really the ski patrol?” Brown, flanked by the Famous Flames, literally skis into this prime slice of ’60s youth-movie cheese and, yanking off his winter coat, makes a cabin of sweatered, smiling teenagers feel good. Ski Party, in which certified heartthrob Frankie Avalon and his right-hand man Dwayne Hickman disguise themselves as young women to get special access to their sweethearts’ social lives, was an alpine extension of the then-booming beach-party genre (famed for its heavy use of musical cameos). Brown’s performance, backed by an invisible organ and horn section, is the movie’s highlight, and another milestone besides: filming the scene, Brown later confessed, was the only time that he had gone in for a split and torn the seat of his pants.
August 29, 4:30pm
August 30, 4:30pm
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA, 2008, 35mm, 92m
Zaire ’74—a three-day music festival for which dozens of top-flight performers, some African, others American, convened in Kinshasa a month before Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle”—took place during a period of intense political and artistic ferment in American music. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s document of the festival, assembled more than 30 years after the fact (from footage shot by, among others, Albert Maysles and Roderick Young) and bookended by a pair of searing performances by Brown, captures the event in all its tension, ecstasy, sweat, and uncertainty: Ali trades mock-punches with the lead singer of The Spinners, Bill Withers brings down the roof with a devastating rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and revolution is in the air throughout. Soul Power is a revealing portrait of an era as manifested by some of its most dynamic and politically engaged performers.
August 29, 6:30pm
August 30, 2:30pm
The T.A.M.I. Show
Steve Binder, USA, 1964, 16mm, 123m
The Holy Grail of concert films—with an eye-popping lineup including Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones—went unseen outside the bootleg circuit for decades due to rights disputes. Seen in its full glory, it’s a showcase for American pop music at the undisputed height of its passion, humor, pathos, virtuosity, and vigor. Lesley Gore’s voice was never more commanding, and Mick Jagger shakes a mean maraca, but the undisputed highpoint is Brown’s four-song set: a sustained, expertly modulated outpouring of passion performed—fittingly, for an artist who began his career as a gospel singer—with the sweaty, bone-straining urgency of a man who feels his soul is on the line.
August 31, 2:00pm & 6:30pm
When We Were Kings
Leon Gast, USA, 1996, 35mm, 88m
Leon Gast’s now-classic documentary on the “Rumble in the Jungle”—Muhammad Ali’s triumphant Kinshasa fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman—took more than two decades to finish. By the time of completion, it had become a reflection on the responsibilities and demands of fame, a snapshot of a moment when black Americans were starting, partly thanks to Ali’s example, to embrace their African heritage en masse, and a hymn to Ali’s mesmerizing, canny presence outside the ring. With commentary by Spike Lee and Norman Mailer and appearances by B.B. King, The Seekers, and Brown—seen here greeting Ali at the airport, hanging out with Don King, and, in one scene, turning to the camera and making a passionate appeal for black empowerment.
September 1, 8:00pm