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Soul on Screen : An appreciation


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Soul on Screen : An appreciation magazine cover

Soul on Screen :

An appreciation of Soul music's portrayal by Hollywood and some future options?

In anticipation of the cinema release of “Respect” I thought I'd prompt discussion on previous biographical films, and raise a few suggestions for some future ones.  I have focussed on drama-based productions as opposed to the many excellent range of documentaries available which warrant a separate focus. I have also restricted it to Black music which has delivered its fair share of Hollywood biographical productions in recent years.

 

What do we want from a bio film? Well, its complex as we often come as committed fans of the artist and demand accuracy but might feel uncomfortable with a warts and all expose, but few of us come to the event with any illusions by the time Hollywood delivers it on celluloid.

Primarily we should hope the production has at least done justice to the artists talents and achievements. We would hope for a fair degree of accuracy, both visually, musically and in the narrative.  (It's often easy to forget that most lead roles are lip synching to existing recordings by the original artist/s) We would also want to be entertained but at the same time accept that these films come with painful life histories, particularly when it involved the social struggles that many Black artists had to overcome. These films can be notorious for their mythologising, inaccuracies, and twee cliched scenes. You might be forgiven for rejecting them all and just settle for solely for the glorious live celebration displayed in Summer of Soul. Soul music does not need Hollywoods validation, but its history and struggles deserve to be seen by   a wider audience. Despite their flaws I'm a sucker for these films, particularly the focus on an artist's early years. I relish seeing artists crafting a sound or an identity, overcoming hurdles and disadvantage. Nothing beats seeing an iconic song or tune being born in the studio or some empty bar.

 

 

 

Whilst Black music will always be my passion, I’ll admit that one of my favourite film biography’s is the 1954 “The Glen Miller Story” , staring James Stewart. On examination it doesn’t stand up to the level of factual scrutiny common to Soul source, but that won't prevent us from enjoying it. There is a 17th word ‘verisimilitude ‘which breaks down to mean,’a likeness to the truth’. This would ring alarm bells in a court room, or parliament, when it comes to the crafting of the Glen Miller Bands“ Pennsylvania Six-Five Thousand” or who really discovered the Jackson Five I can forgive Hollywood some dramatic licence.  Other non Soul credible biographies I would recommend are  “ A Coal Miner’s Daughter (Patsy Kline ) and Love and Mercy (Brian Wilson)  

Hollywood is a canny beast who with an acute sense of what appeals whether is it fact or fiction.  The films I have listed here all draw on the emotional roller coaster of early struggles, personal and social obstacles, the elation of success and the tragic price that sometimes comes with it. I have included a couple of TV mini series productions, which are currently available on You Tube for free.

If you have any doubts about the emotional and commercial appeal of this film genre’ you might be surprised to know that there are currently a dozen such films currently in production, and half of the artists are still alive.  They include Bob Dylan, Robbie Williams and Madonna.  (Hollywood ever impatient to make a buck ahead of a rival !)  Fortunately they also include , Louis Armstrong, Whitney Houston, Bob Marley, Teddy Pendegrass, and Dusty Springfield. (Focussing on her Memphis and Motown years. ) Perhaps the most long awaited is Warner Brothers “Whats Going On “biography of Marvin Gaye due in 2023. Two of the films below appear in Rolling Stone magazines top 30 music biographies. Get on Up is No. 20 on the list and Ray comes in at 13.

 

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Ray

Commonly acknowledged as one of the best biographical films made, it was at least 15 years in development by an indie Production company before Universal took it on. They gave director Taylor Hackford a generous 150 minutes to portray the epic tale of Ray Charles’s rise from Southern rural poverty, family tragedy and the onset of blindness by the age of seven. Jamie Foxx was totally convincing at the adult Charles who was schooled in classical piano and went on to fuse a career and sound that incorporated Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Country, into what became the roots of Soul music.

The film follows his struggles with alcohol, drugs, racism and some complex and volatile relationships. These are portrayed with powerful female roles showing the anguish of his mother, his wife and the Raylettes . Far from a sanitised figure he’s shown as single minded, often selfish figure, both at home and in his career. Produced on a $40 million budget it went on to earn Universal $124 million and two academy awards for Best Actor and and a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics Choice. Sadly, Ray Charles died of liver disease aged 73, four months before the film's release.

Stand Out line:

Marlene Andre “Ray what did I tell you about cooking in the dark? Are you trying to burn the house down?   

Ray Charles: “Think about it, Marlene, what do I need the light for ?”

Musical Highlight

There are many but this clinches it for me.

1953 and Ahmet Ertegun has persuaded Ray to sign for Atlantic Records but is disappointed that he is staying safe with Nat King Cole sound a like songs . Ahmetpresents him with a song he has penned himself, “ The Mess Around ‘which Ahmet starts to deliver. Within seconds Charles, sat at a piano, has taken over the song and delivers it with trademark panache and vigour. It was a minor hit but the first of many on Atlantic and resurfaced in style with John Candy lip syncing in the priceless Trains , Planes and Automobiles.

Scene Stealer :

In a flash back we see recently blind Ray aged 7 in the kitchen where he takes a fall. He cries out for pleading for his Mother, who has witnessed it standing silently nearby. For a split second she steps forward to help, but then makes the painful decision to freeze and fake her absence knowing he must develop coping strategies of his own for a tough life ahead. Little Ray delivers in abundance.

Scene Stealer 2)

Ray bumps into  his old friend Quincy Jones at the Newport Jazz festival  shortly after he has released the MOR hit Georgia on My Mind . The pair discuss this musical direction and the prospect of working together, but Ray is contracted to work in the South. Quincy provides Ray with an unambiguous response on the issue.

When I left Seattle and went down there it felt like Id walked into a prison cell. You know a black man is  a boy in Mississippi  Ray , even if he’s 80 years old. Im never playing for Jim Crow again. “

Within months Ray reverses his decision to play to segregated audiences in his home state of Georgia.

 

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Get On Up. : 2014.

The films history dated  back to 2000 with Ron Howards Imagine Entertainment committed to its development , later joined by  British partnership of  Mick Jagger and the Butterworth brothers who contribute to an excellent script.  Howard graduate Chadwick Boseman  came to the lead  role with two successful sports films under his belt and  a readiness to take on one of America’s most iconic and yet complex characters. (Not to mention some exacting choreography)

His life is delivered in a series of short flashbacks , not necessarily in date order and often involving JB addressing the audience through the camera. I prefer a linear narrative  myself but this worked. His life was rife with drama , tension, turmoil and incredible creativity . Scenes are selected from the rural poverty of the South, to his early success via prison and his gospel years. Brown was never far from a conflict whether its with The JB’s , record companies  , women  , politicians , or the police . There’s no sanitised  attempt to avoid his faults . ( Drug use , tax avoidance ,domestic abuse and bullying )Costing $30 million the film grossed $33.4  million worldwide at the box office.   Boseman went on to more success with The Avengers franchise, Black Panther and Ma Raineys Black Bottom before he sadly succumbed to cancer in 2020.

 

Stand out Lines

Two from the many available  :

“I'm James Brown I made a difference, y’all cats might not own my records, but I bet your bottom dollar every record you own got a piece of me in “

Bobby Byrd risks telling James that he’d like to have his own career, which Brown sees as an act of betrayal and assures Byrd he doesn’t need him. Before leaving Byrd retorts :

“Funny thing James, I ain’t leaving you on your own. You already on your own. You always were. “

Music Highlight

In 1964 JB takes to the stage to deliver his trademark raucous brand of Funk and Soul to an ecstatic crowd of teenagers who’ve come to see the Rolling Stones, Brown is denied headline spot despite his greater pedigree. Knowing the Stones are looking on in awe off stage James delivers  slides, glides, spins and kicks with a raucous performance exiting past the amazed Stones with a cheeky  “Welcome to America “ . .

 

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Cadillac Records (2008)

Reputed to be the first Hollywood film devoted solely to the history of a single record company. initially Matt Damon was scheduled to play Leonard Chess but pulled out leaving the role open for Adrien Brody who had received rave reviews for Polanski’s The Piano, and more recently provided a riveting performance as Italian mobster Luca Changretta in S4 of Peaky Blinders.

Whilst the film primarily focuses on the birth and growth of Chess Records set up by Jewish American music obsessives in 1940’s Chicago, it delivers a solid roster of Blues, Jazz and RnB characters.  Muddy Walters , Howlin Wolf , Chuck Berry and Little Walter .  Beyonce provided a stand out singing role as Etta James and her delivery of “At Last” saw the song reborn as an anthem to a whole new generation. Sadly it fell short of expectations to audiences and failed  to recoup the $12 million budget.  The soundtrack was nominated for 3 Grammys and Beyonce was invited to perform “At Last “at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration Ball.

Musical Highlight:

Beyonce’s sultry and pained delivery of the Etta James classic “‘At Last”.

 

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Whats Love Got to Do With It. (1993)

Charting  Anna Mae Bullock’s journey from  the daughter of a Tennesse sharecropper raised by both her Mother and later Grandmother , before she morphed into Tina Turner after joining Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band. Angela Bassett fought off strong contenders for the adult role including Halle Berry, Robin Givens, Pam Grier, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. Laurence Fishburne took some persuading to take on the more toxic but challenging role of Ike Turner .Bassett delivers an outstanding performance on stage and off , Fishburne’s brooding menace and paranoia is also  totally convincing .Like others listed here the films release  was marked by a litany of alleged inaccuracies  , many of them around dates but some surrounding accusations of rape and the use of a prostitute hired by Ike to cover for Tina following childbirth. The film was nominated for 2 Academy Awards, Bassett won Golden Globe and NAACP awards .The film grossed   $56.4 million worldwide , but it provided something of far more value socially. The stark brutality and story of survival eclipsed the music content. The film and Tina Turner became a beacon world wide for womens safety and a need to address domestic abuse.  Ironically Tina was reported to be no more happier with the finished product than Ike , resenting the role of ‘Victim’.

Stand out line.

Tina is rushed to hospital in an ambulance after taking an overdose to escape Ike’s abuse. In the ambulance Ike leans over the unconscious Tina . “You got to Make it, if you don’t make it I’ll kill you”.

It can take a few minutes for the absurdity of that statement to sink it , and it serves to reinforce her plight and the extent of his control.

Scene stealer.

1976 Ike and Tina fly into Dallas ahead of a show. In the taxi to their hotel Ike inflicts a savage beating on Tina who    inspired by a conversion to Budism, has dared to challenge him. In the hotel room there is a 20 second silent clip of her staring at her puffed up and bruised face, before she takes the momentous decision to flee for good with 26 cents and no control over her name or songs.

Musical highlight .

The film opens with little Anna Mae Bullock’s attending a rural gospel church choir rehearsal. She delivers a version of the hymn with a raucous  passion that attracts frowns and eventually a reprimand from the choir leader. Anna Mae has clearly been influenced by the emerging  Rhythm and Blues and cannot help but to revert to a secular delivering which sees her led by the ear out of the church in shame but undiminished. 

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The Jacksons : An  American Dream (1992)   TV Mini Series

Put  together by Motown’s  film production company De Passe Entertainment  ( Lady Sings the Blues,   Mahogany , The Wiz ) with Jermaine named as co Producer. I have been a fan of some of The Jacksons material , but accept some of their conduct has been crass and abusive. So I didn’t  come to this with high hopes ,  but to be fair  most of it is no  worse than your average made for TV US family drama. It charts the families roots and development from  1940’s Gary, Indiana .Joe  Jackson is very  much the family tyrant , with numerous examples of the often alleged ( and often disputed ) physical and emotional abuse of the children.  Given Katherine was giving birth every 17 months for 16 years, clearly suggests she was no less a victim of Joe’s controlling nature. She’s played by Angela Bassett who does her best with a flakey script

.Jason Weaver delivers a credible Michael (aged 9 - 14) , but amidst a performing family of 9 , there is rarely enough space for anyone else’s character to develop in their headlong push to inevitable stardom demanded by their father. Part 2 inevitably focusses on Michael , but sadly at the expense of some quality releases  in their Epic years . Particularly their self named debut album crafted by Gamble and Huff in the Sigma studios. Instead the narrative skips ahead to the  legendary  Motown 25 Years in 1983. By now the tables have turned and Joe and Gordy have to plead  Michael to appear. You would think Motown might have concluded the story here , but they have to build in some cheesy statements of atonement by or on behalf of Joe delivered to Michael and his Chimp.

It attracted a TV audience of 38 million, prepared to ignore  the litany of alleged inaccuracies . Subsequent Emmy nominations restricted to choreography , hairstyling and sound mixing tells you something about the acting and script quality. It also saw a DVD and soundtrack release and at the time of writing is available for free on You Tube. One for the curious and the tolerant perhaps.

 

 

Musical Highlight :

Following the brothers pre contract performance in Chicago supporting Jackie Wilson. Grady Harrell delivers a passable version of JW delivering “Work Out” to a rapturous theatre audience , including legendary dance moves. Michael watching off stage is totally captivated and is seen copying Jackie’s slides and spins which will later be crafted for the MTV generation.

Scene Stealer

Having signed for Motown the band are in the recording studio accompanied by Joe, Michael is displaying excited curiosity about the mixing desk and is admonished by Joe who walks out as Berry Gordy arrives. Joe looks back to see Michael pestering Gordy with questions about the EQ dials, much to his father's displeasure. Joe Jacksons fearsome scowl provides clear recognition that he is slowly losing control over the boys and he’s helpless to prevent it.

 

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The Temptations : TV Mini Series. : 1998

Like so many made for TV biographies this 2 part 3 hour production is rather glossy and shallow, yet in the absence of anything else on the Temp’s it's an absorbing and painful watch.   Based on Otis Williams biography and put together by Motown executives it whizzes through   the highs and lows of assorted line ups over   40 years . Needless to say Williams and Motown/Gordy come through unscathed . A stand out, but equally controversial role was Leon Robinsons gripping portrayal of David Ruffin, although most of the songs were delivered by a  Louis Price , who had a three year spell with a version of The Temptations in the the late seventies. It has a number of inaccuracies and triggered a number of (unsuccessful ) law suits from the families of Melvin Franklin and David Ruffin. Despite this its flaws it delivered ABC TV  45 million viewers , the director won an Emmy and it has since achieved success through a stage show, an album and sales of the DVD. At the time of writing the full series can be accessed for free on You Tube.

 

 

Musical Highlight :

December 1964 , 1964, members join the Williams family to watch the first TV airing of their new Smokey Robinson crafted single “My Girl”,  led by new member David Ruffin. Amidst the shouts of unbridled joy and pride the camera pans into the black and white TV shot and through the screen to see the group perform in colour in the studio. It was an instant classic and one of their signature tunes for years to come.

 

 

Soul on Film : Long Over Due.

Soul music has a wealth of biographies that would translate well onto celluloid , and here are a few suggestions . Id welcome any more .

Cool Notes. KTF.

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Provisional Film Title “ Good Times”

Narrative

Blessed with Hollywood good looks and  a voice to die for , Gospel star Sam struggles to disguise his voice from church audiences. He goes on to become a pop legend and creative genius before tragedy strikes.

Scene stealer

December 18, 1964, 200,000 fans line the streets of Chicago to view Sams body in a funeral home following his tragic death.

Musical Highlight

Weeks after being denied access to a Louisiana Holiday Inn on Sam is seen drafting “ A Change is Gonna Come” , which is added to his new album and is a B side to his next single “Shout” . It becomes an anthem to the civil rights movement and voted 12th most important song in history by Rolling Stone magazine

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Gladys Knight :

Atlanta Child music prodigy  finds fame with her cousins . She takes a gamble on men and a whole lot more  before being crowned  the Empress of Soul .

Provisional Title: ‘I Feel a Song” .

Musical Highlight

Studio Recordings  of  ‘No one Can Love You More’ or ‘Friendship Train ‘.

Scene Stealer .

A tense face off between Gladys , Berry Gordy and Diana Ross after Gordy bounces Gladys and the Pips off the Motown Tour for over shadowing Ross.

 

 

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Bill Withers

Title “Just Call on Me Brother “

Narrative

Son of a Virginia miner , and  former navy veteran  flies to success in the music buisness, and

Scene stealer

In the Virginia mining town of Bekley a young Bill struggles with a stutter . We flash forward to his enrolment in the Navy, where he is invited to jam with fellow sailors . His passion for music is born.

Musical highlight

By day Bill is working at the Weber aircraft production plant, at night he is crafting his first album . We see him at work , signing “ Aint No Sunshine” , before being reprimanded by his boss.

 

Cool Notes. 

 

 

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Interesting article. At long last black music cultural icons are being given their place in the long tradition of Hollywood music biopics. First can I point out the error- "Coal Miners Daughter" was based on the life of Loretta Lynn. "Sweet Dreams" was the Patsy Cline bio-pic starring Jessica Lange. The first major studio biopic of a major black star has to be "Lady Sings The Blues" released in 1973 and starring Diana Ross as... Diana Ross! The movie plays fast and hard with the truth regarding the biographical facts of Billie Holliday's life and career. Diana Ross famously lost out on the Oscar which went to Liza Minnelli for her OTT cringeworthy performance as... Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret". "Lady" was a culturally significant movie, proving that major movie with a black cast could succeed at the box office. Strangely the movie was shown only twice on UK TV back in the 80s and despite a major US anniversary release has never been available on video, DVD or Blu Ray. It also seems to be overlooked when documentaries feature the history of "black cinema" and Ross is almost never recognised by female African American actors when they collect THEIR awards. Diana broke through so many glass ceilings and broke into so many areas of the music and wider entertainment industry both as a Supreme and as a solo performer.

Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Gladys Knight, The Supremes (DreamGirls doesn't count!)  The Motown Story (NOT the jukebox stage show) are all ripe for the picking. The Marvin movie has been talked about for the past 40 years!  It's just good to finally see these great artists receive the recognition they deserve on the silver screen, exposing their music to a whole new generation for the first time, cementing their legacy and keeping their music alive.

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Thanks for that. I've enjoyed all those films and am really looking forward to the Aretha Franklin movie. There's been many rumours of an Otis Redding film over the years and I'd love to see that done well.

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On 16/08/2021 at 15:50, Moutton Noir said:

Interesting article. At long last black music cultural icons are being given their place in the long tradition of Hollywood music biopics. First can I point out the error- "Coal Miners Daughter" was based on the life of Loretta Lynn. "Sweet Dreams" was the Patsy Cline bio-pic starring Jessica Lange. The first major studio biopic of a major black star has to be "Lady Sings The Blues" released in 1973 and starring Diana Ross as... Diana Ross! The movie plays fast and hard with the truth regarding the biographical facts of Billie Holliday's life and career. Diana Ross famously lost out on the Oscar which went to Liza Minnelli for her OTT cringeworthy performance as... Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret". "Lady" was a culturally significant movie, proving that major movie with a black cast could succeed at the box office. Strangely the movie was shown only twice on UK TV back in the 80s and despite a major US anniversary release has never been available on video, DVD or Blu Ray. It also seems to be overlooked when documentaries feature the history of "black cinema" and Ross is almost never recognised by female African American actors when they collect THEIR awards. Diana broke through so many glass ceilings and broke into so many areas of the music and wider entertainment industry both as a Supreme and as a solo performer.

Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Gladys Knight, The Supremes (DreamGirls doesn't count!)  The Motown Story (NOT the jukebox stage show) are all ripe for the picking. The Marvin movie has been talked about for the past 40 years!  It's just good to finally see these great artists receive the recognition they deserve on the silver screen, exposing their music to a whole new generation for the first time, cementing their legacy and keeping their music alive.

Thanks for your comments and corrections. I was aware of Lady Sings the Blues, Im sure I saw it many years ago but don't think I was that impressed . But  as you say it does warrant credit for breaking through racial barriers. As you say the Motown story alone could provide numerous fascinating bio pic's  with Marvin and Stevie most likely but far more that also deserve attention. 

Cool Notes 

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On 17/08/2021 at 17:49, Daved said:

Thanks for that. I've enjoyed all those films and am really looking forward to the Aretha Franklin movie. There's been many rumours of an Otis Redding film over the years and I'd love to see that done well.

I've not seen 'Respect' (2021) yet, but will as it has Forest Whitaker in it, so can't be bad. Reviews suggest it is a showcase for Jennifer Hudson vocals inter-dispersed with some stuff about Aretha's life.

There's also 'Genius' series 3 about AF, nowt special IMO and far too long at 8 times 1hr episodes (made in 2017, released this year?)

Now the film documentary 'Amazing Grace' (2018) is a great watch.

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Curtis Mayfield, Little Richard, and Dusty Springfield NOT concentrating on her US outings.  Her 50s beginnings, the swinging 60s, and her comeback in the late 80s deserve just as much, if not more, attention.

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This is a made for TV film ,staring Leon , who appeared in the Temptations story.  There appear to be plans to make a Dusty biography , which I agree is long over due. Id considered suggesting Curtis. Im a huge fan and personally would find the accident scenes and beyond really heartbreaking  to watch. . Cool Notes. 

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