Appreciation: James Brown

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ARALDO DI CROLLALANZA / SIPA

James Brown in 1992

The news was a shock but not a really surprise. Another Christmas death, another pop-cultural immortal with a Dec. 25 tombstone. Add James Brown to a distinguished list that includes Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and Dean Martin (Birgit Nilsson, if you want to go a bit upmarket). Along with the Noels, sing a requiem for the Godfather of Soul. But make sure it ends with Brown’s trademark “Hey!” — that quick, high-pitched syllable that exploded from him with seismic suddenness, like the bark of an electrocuted schnauzer.

The early eulogizers have limned Brown’s contribution to rock (in his shift from the 2-4 upbeat to the 1-3 downbeat), to rap (his riffs sampled in maybe a thousand songs), to dance (his moves influencing Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and countless club hoppers and frat boys), to racial consciousness in the '60s (his anthemic “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”). Others will itemize Brown’s rap sheet and jail time — for larceny as a teenager, then the two police chases (unlike O.J.’s, J.B.’s were naturally high-speed) and the assault complaints lodged by various wives and other women — and ponder the connection, in the life of an performer or pro athlete, between adrenaline-fueled excellence in his career and the need to express his anger with his fists. But I’ll leave those speculations to the psychologists.

As a film critic, I could talk about Brown’s infrequent but influential career on the big screen. Fans cherish his too-brief appearances in the Blues Brothers movies, and his demolishing of the all-star competition (the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye) in the T.A.M.I. Show concert film of 1965. Remember, too, the prissy fury that Shrevie, the obsessive rock-LP collector in Diner, summons when he realizes the extent of his bride’s musical ignorance — “How could you file my James Brown record under J?” Right now, Soul Brother No. 1 is being impersonated by Eddie Murphy in the movie version of Dreamgirls. If the Academy Award for supporting actor goes to Murphy (who in his Saturday Night Live days did a pretty expert James Brown impression), you know whom he’ll thank on Oscar night.

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