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24 Feb 2024


NextImg:Stream It Or Skip It: ‘James Brown: Say It Loud’ on A&E, a new docuseries about the life, career, and enduring legacy of the Godfather of Soul 

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James Brown: Say It Loud

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James Brown: Say It Loud is a new four-part docuseries for A&E about the unlikely rise, the resulting stardom he worked so hard for, and the lasting legacy of “The Godfather of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” “Mr. Dynamite.” A singer, dancer, musician, and consummate entertainer whose reputation was so powerful, it required four nicknames to properly express. Executive produced by Mick Jagger and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and directed by Deborah Riley Draper, Say it Loud features new interviews alongside rare archival footage and clips of sizzling performances from throughout Brown’s legendary career, with appearances by Jagger and Thompson, LL Cool J, Bootsy Collins, and Chuck D, as well as members of Brown’s family.   

Opening Shot:I got soul! And I’m superbad…” Over an electric supercut of iconic moments from the James Brown stage experience – the influential, totally unique dance moves, the riotous splits, the spinning mic stand, the resplendent cape – we hear a few testimonials to Brown’s talent from musicians and academics alike. “I love that two things he brought to the table were two taboo words,” Thompson says. “Funk, and Black.”   

The Gist:  “What’s undeniable, and consistently so in James Brown’s presentation of self, is that he’s a Black man,” Morehouse College psychology professor Dr. David Wall Rice says in Say It Loud. “He’s authentically, and unapologetically Black.” And the from the moment Brown found his way through a violent upbringing, the harsh sting of poverty, and a stint in prison while still a teen to bona fide hit single status with the 1958 A-side “Please, Please, Please,” James Brown was never going to step back or apologize for anything. The traumas of his early years would stay with him, notes professor and psychologist Sinead Young observes, and manifest themselves in relationship-based violence and Brown’s treatment of women. But his powers of self-determination were equal to the power he had in performance, two parts of him that were formed through his experiences growing up in the American South.

Entitled “Making A Life For Myself,” the first part of Say It Loud delves into Brown’s early years, but soon connects that to his burgeoning, pretty much unstoppable rise to fame. By 1962, Brown had hit singles like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me,” and his incendiary live show was established throughout the Chitlin Circuit. But the singer and performer knew that recording a live album would transmit that energy in unprecedented ways. Live at the Apollo (1963) was that album, and Brown financed it himself. “They said it couldn’t be done,” he says in a great old clip. “But I’ve always been a man to do my own thing, control my own destiny.” Dr. Jason King of USC calls Apollo one of the most important albums in the history of recorded music. “It captures James Brown and his band at a very specific time in the evolution of his career. He had figured out how to perform in such a way that was going to win people over.”

JAMES BROWN SAY IT LOUD STREAMING
Photo: A&E

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Mick Jagger was also a producer of the 2014 Alex Gibney-directed documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which explores Brown’s life and career in detail and features many of the same interviewees as Say It Loud. And though it leaves the streamer in March, Netflix currently hosts the biopic Get On Up –  again co-produced by Jagger! – which stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Brown and features Viola Davis, Craig Robinson, and Octavia Spencer.

Our Take: James Brown: Say It Loud doesn’t take the impressionistic road that a number of recent artist documentaries have followed, stuff like Little Richard: I Am Everything or Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity. But with a subject as lively as Brown, it almost certainly doesn’t have to. Even inside the standard framing of this docuseries, which alternates on-camera talking head interviews with archival footage selected to fill in the timeline, Brown’s singular style and unmatched collection of live performance jewels – those punctuating grunts, spirited callbacks, and ever-so-righteous exclamations that today represent his language and the underpinnings of  generations of sampled music – help Brown to break outside the frame completely. 

Basically, Mr. Dynamite was not to be contained. The thrust of the docuseries in the early going helps define how a kid who came from nothing accessed his power center – performance – and harnessed it in such a way that it was his alone. It’s an inspirational throughline, and also accurately positions Brown between discussion of his role as a pure entertainer and his work as a representation of Black masculinity. It was the totality of his live show that made Brown so magnetizing to wider audiences, saxophonist Tia Fuller says. Nobody was doing it at that level. (In other words, “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” wasn’t just for branding purposes.) But that intangible energy he controlled? It was within James Brown, too. “He literally built himself from scratch,” observes professor and ethnomusicologist Chris Daniels in Say It Loud. “This was one of those guys who just felt every inch of the soul that he gave people.”     

Sex and Skin: An important aspect of James Brown and the Famous Flames’ 1964 appearance on the T.A.M.I. Show and in its accompanying film is how it showed Brown and his band performing their famous stage show for an ecstatic audience made up of both Black and white kids. It was a transmission of raw power expressed in numerous ways, one of which was for Brown to completely upstage a young group of British dudes known as the Rolling Stones. 

Parting Shot: “He was a risk taker,” Essence editor-at-large Mikki Taylor says in part two of James Brown: Say It Loud, entitled “The Most Powerful Black Man in America.” Brown, says Taylor, “Gave you sex and protest at the same time,” and as his influence grew in the Black community and American society, the star’s interactions with protest and politics made him both friends and enemies. 

Sleeper Star: James Brown was the star of his own life, a man born to seize the power from performance. So there’s no way somebody else is gonna be the sleeper star of the documentary series devoted to his life. In Say It Loud, what’s undeniable is how on-message Brown always remained. “I write and arrange all my tunes on my records,” he says in a piece of tape from the early 1960s. “I’ve never taken music in my life. I write all the lyrics, all the music, record the record and everything. So when the record come out, it’s James Brown. Not somebody else.” 

Most Pilot-y Line: Dr. David Wall Rice of Morehouse College says that immediately, with the success of his initial singles, James Brown went to work in a new kind of realm, a realm he was ready to conquer by being exactly who he’d always been. “James Brown is stepping into himself as he is presenting himself. This beautiful, dark-skinned Black man who’s screamin’ at ya, talking about ‘Please, Please, Please.’”

Our Call: STREAM IT. The life and work of the Hardest Working Man In Show Business have been represented before in both documentary and biopic form. But James Brown: Say It Loud offers an effective blend of standard biography, insight from famous faces, context from scholars, and access to a wealth of footage. Sometimes, just seeing James Brown saying it loud in performance is all the story you need. 

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.