NOT SUCH A FOOL (Great Quotations)

EDDIEANDSHARON

(Eddie Cochran and Sharon Sheeley. At eighteen, Sheeley was the first solo female songwriter to write a #1 record for the Billboard Pop Chart. (It was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.” She stalled her car in front of his house and, when he came out to help her, convinced him she was on her way to deliver the song to Elvis and would he like to hear it first?) She was riding next to Cochran–by some accounts as his fiance–in England, when he was killed in a car crash in April, 1960. After recovering from severe injuries herself, she teamed with Jackie DeShannon to form the first (and, frankly, only**) successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. You wonder why I keep chipping away at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Because it’s a worthwhile institution overall and I cling to the hope that, some day, if enough small voices do the same, they’ll get it right, especially where women and secret heroes are concerned.)

This is from Joel Selvin’s obituary for Sheeley, (quoted in Real Life Rock, Greil Marcus, 2015, originally printed at Salon.com June 10, 2002):

“Although Sheeley lived 42 more years, she never got over Eddie,” writes Selvin, author of “Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation” and the unforgiving “Summer of Love.” “She was never able to stay with another man for long. Cochran loomed over her life. She will be buried in a plot next to him.”

“‘Poor Little Fool’ provided a modest annual stipend,” Selvin concluded. “She lived quietly with her grown son, across the street from her sister. She entertained visitors with hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, peppered with sly humor and innuendo. Sheeley was the original Riot Grrrl, even if those in her debt never knew. One young music business secretary sighed to Sheeley about Cochran’s good looks a few years ago. ‘Honey,’ Sheeley said, ‘you should have seen him when he was breathing.’”

(“Somethin’ Else” was co-written by Sheeley and Bob Cochran, Eddie’s brother. I’ll have a good deal more to say about her ability to write from a rather different, specifically male, perspective in an upcoming post.)

(**In the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, song-mill sense, and I’ll just add that Sheeley and DeShannon did so as true free-lancers, without that kind of support system.)

[NOTE: This life-affirming post was in lieu of a negativity-fueled rant I had practically written in my head concerning the crit-illuminati wetting themselves celebrating the new Star Wars’ movie’s “diversity” because they’ve added Stepin Fetchit and Katniss Everdeen to the franchise. I don’t want anybody coming around here trying to collect any Pollyanna dues from me for at least a year.]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (James Brown at the Multiplex)

Get On Up–2014 (d. Tate Taylor)

(Photo: Imagine Entertainment)

I managed to catch Get On Up this week and it was more than well worth the wait, the price of the ticket and the after-dark flat tire I got on the way home.

As a biopic of James Brown–musician, tyrant, savant, striver, mystery–it’s excellent.

As an essay on “the funk”–the man’s music from across several decades woven seamlessly into the compelling story up top while creating and sustaining its own steadily rising pulse underneath–it’s brilliant.

As a mirror-filled, winding journey through the traps that reside inside Black America’s mighty attempt to both belong to the American Experiment and retain a meaningful personal or collective identity separate and apart from it, it’s genuinely scarifying.

Chadwick Boseman’s performance has been widely praised and, even so, probably not enough. I haven’t seen all of the musical biopics based on rock/soul musicians (Ray being the biggest gap in my viewing). But I’ve seen a lot of them, and nothing–not even the fantastic double-team Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix did on June and Johnny–matches what Boseman does here, which is fix this nonlinear journey (Robert Christgau, whose positive review finally got me to the theater, called it time-traveling, referencing Jonathan Lethem’s take on Brown from several years back–I’d call it time-warping) firmly around his center, while withholding just enough of Brown’s essence to preclude the usual easy assumptions such a narrative generally fails to avoid in any context, let alone a Hollywood film.

I spent the movie waiting for Boseman to either fall off his high-wire or give in to cliche, so certain it was bound to happen that the failure of any such to arrive came as slow relief rather than exhilaration. Not saying I didn’t also have fun, but I’ll enjoy it better next time around, knowing that neither Boseman or the film ever give in.

To the extent that the film has any conventional structure, it’s centered around the love story between Brown and his long-time sideman Bobby Byrd. Playing Brown’s alter-ego–the brother he never had–Nelsan Ellis matches Boseman’s quality and commitment step for jagged step. At least one of their scenes on stage (recreating a show in Paris) matches the excitement Brown and Byrd created night after night in real life and Ellis’ quiet evocation of the joy and pain a performer experiences at the moment when he realizes he isn’t going to be the man because his best friend is going to be the man is as heartbreaking a scene as any I can recall.

JAMESBROWNRSTONES

So much being to the good, the film’s one real weakness is the portrayal of all white people (including those pictured above, which by itself is fine, especially since Mick Jagger produced and is probably responsible for this being made at all, the best thing he’s done in decades) as clueless, shuck-and-jive minstrels. Reversing history’s bad taste (and depriving it of any of the subversive elements real minstrels, from Stepin Fetchit on back, often brought to the table) gets us nowhere. The notion that one race–any race–defines virtue at the expense of another isn’t so much ridiculous as dangerous, summoning as it does the false comforts that derive from a matrix of deadly assumptions: that the worm White America once rode to glory has turned, that it can never turn back and so what if it did.

Whatever his faults as a man (and one reason Get On Up isn’t likely to generate much Oscar buzz is that it does not skimp on those genuinely disturbing faults) James Brown the artist certainly knew better–knew the way to oneness is oneness, not cheap corn or, among other things, misrepresenting The T.A.M.I. Show as an all-white venue where Brown was the lone soulful interloper.

That being said, until somebody has the nerve to do a two-man show where Elvis (sadly absent here) and James sit in a hotel room (maybe in Vegas) talking for two hours–ending with a coda where James says goodbye to E’s corpse–this will remain definitive, and more than fill the cup.