Famously, James Brown took the stage to a litany of nicknames: the Godfather of Soul! Soul Brother Number One! The Hardest Working Man in Show Business! But the best one of all might have been the one you’ve heard the least: Butane James. Because James Brown lit it up, every time.
“Get on Up,” the James Brown biopic, opens Friday. As we prepare to watch the fine young actor Chadwick Boseman (he was Jackie Robinson last year in “42”) take on the daunting task of portraying one of the more inimitable human beings of the electronic age, here’s a playlist of some of the late soul dynamo’s best, most spectacular performances. (Though frankly, any clip of him at all is a master class in stage magnetism.)
“James Brown is my greatest in inspiration,” Michael Jackson said at a memorial service, in Augusta, Ga., five days after the Godfather’s death, on Christmas Day 2006. “When I saw him move, I was mesmerized.” When you see this YouTube favorite — even if you’ve seen it before — you’ll know the feeling. Brown casually demonstrates all his “Soul Train” moves — the Boogaloo, the Camel Walk, the Mashed Potatoes and, of course, the James Brown — in an empty dance studio. No one was better — not even Michael.
A sequel of sorts to the exceptional “When We Were Kings,” Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary on the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, in 1974, “Soul Power” zeroes in on Zaire 74, the three-day music festival that featured B. B. King, Bill Withers, the Spinners, and several African acts. In a skintight jumpsuit with “GFOS” — Godfather of Soul — lettered in glitter on the abdomen, Brown takes the stage with his patented magic footwork, drops into a deep split, and takes off from there.
The legend: A 21-year-old Mick Jagger was quaking in his Beatle boots to lead his band, the Rolling Stones, onstage after the indomitable James Brown. The occasion was the filming of this 1964 concert feature that showcased Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys and more. In a recent interview about “Get on Up,” which he’s co-producing, Jagger addressed his supposed star-struck stupor in the shadow of one of his biggest heroes: “In the end . . . we had to work harder, and he worked harder, so maybe it was a better show because of it.” The movie is living proof.
‘Man to Man’
Filmed at the Apollo Theater six years after Brown’s landmark original live recording there, this syndicated TV special included stark footage of the then-newly politicized singer walking the streets of Harlem and Watts, expounding on civil rights and the country’s race relations. “I told him, ‘If you want to, you can be the next meaningful leader of our race,’ ” recalled community organizer Donald Warden, as quoted in a Life magazine cover story around the time.
Reissued as “James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68” on the 2008 box set “I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ’60s.”
Longtime sideman Bobby Byrd gets a costarring role in this TV appearance from 1971, nailing an elaborate palm-slapping, hip-bumping routine with the boss. Resistance is futile: Go ahead and shake your moneymaker.
‘Beat the Devil’
In this bizarro 2002 short film made as a promotional piece for BMW (directed by Tony Scott), Gary Oldman plays an all-the-way-mad Prince of Darkness, and James Brown the aging performer who wants to renegotiate. “Remember me?” he asks. In a flashback, we see a very young James standing by himself at a crossroads, where he lands a backflip in a split.
Live at Boston Garden, April 5, 1968
On the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Brown went ahead with a scheduled concert at Boston Garden. New mayor Kevin White helped arrange for the show to be simulcast on WGBH, and the lure of the broadcast is often credited for keeping the peace in Boston, as other major cities endured riots. At one point, Brown’s young fans begin to rush the stage. Tensions soar as police knock them back, but the singer waves them off. “Are we together or we ain’t?” he cries. Having seized control of a volatile situation, he directs his band to throttle into “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”: “Hit the thing!”
The tiny stage on the set could barely contain Brown’s hot big band, much less the frontman himself. From the fierce bass line of “Hot Pants” (which later inspired Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) to “Get on the Good Foot” and “Make It Funky,” this is Brown’s band at its tightest. Which is saying something.
James Sullivan is the author of “The Hardest Working Man:
How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.”