James Brown Was Always Imitated, but Never Surpassed

James Brown | Oscar Ballots Mailed Tuesday| Michael Jackson | Kennedy Center Honors

James Brown Was Always Imitated, but Never Surpassed

The ironies are tremendous: As "Dreamgirls" opened across the country on Christmas Day, the news came that the legendary "Godfather of Soul" James Brown had died.

There are still questions about how and why Brown died, but the immediate parallel is interesting. Eddie Murphy plays James "Thunder" Early in "Dreamgirls," and no matter what anyone says, Murphy — at least for the first half of the movie — is playing a version of Brown.

Indeed, when Murphy's Early bursts out into a funky rap on a live TV show later in the film, it's Brown he's channeling. No way around it.

'Godfather of Soul' Singer James Brown Dead at 73

James Brown was imitated all through his career, but never surpassed. A song like Prince's big hit "Kiss" is one of many derived from Brown's persona, talent and influence.

And while there will be plenty of stories in the next few days of Brown acting crazy on PCP, of time spent in jail and other salacious bits, it's important to remember his contributions to society and charity. In April 1968, he arrived in Boston for a live televised show just as news broke that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Brown calmed the near-riotous crowd and made sure the show went on without a hitch.

PHOTO ESSAY: Remembering James Brown

He wasn't called the "hardest working man in show business" for nothing — even though he gave himself that nickname. I've seen him perform several times in the last few years, and he never gave less than expected at any show. He still wore his cape, did splits the best he could, yelped through his songs and spun around like a top. Not bad for a man in his late 60s and early 70s.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Brown — as he insisted on being called by everyone around him — was honored with a store window at Barneys on Madison Avenue. His huge distinctive head filled the whole area, and his mouth moved to one of his songs. Later, I interviewed him, and Mr. Brown told me that Aretha Franklin had wanted to marry him, but he said no.

Who knows if it was true? In his mind, it was, and that's all that mattered. You had to take some of the things Mr. Brown said with a tablespoon of salt.

Mr. Brown had his share of hits, songs that everyone knows and dances to, like "I Feel Good," "Sex Machine" (with the famous line "shake your moneymaker"), "It's a Man's World" (even Cher covered that one) and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

He launched a lot of other careers, too, like Bobby Byrd ("I Got Soul"), Fred Wesley and the JBs and Maceo Parker. They came and went, but no matter what happened, everyone knew they were part of James Brown's orbit. They couldn't escape it. He was even memorialized by the Tom Tom Club in their early funk hit "Genius of Love."

Now James Brown joins a disarming list of R&B greats who passed away in the last year, like Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Ruth Brown, Billy Preston, Ahmet Ertegun and Arif Mardin. Not too long before them, Eugene Record also passed.

The list of R&B originals who remain is shrinking quickly. No one can or will replace them, that much is clear already. Plenty of people will try to imitate or steal from them, but it won't work. Music, and our culture, will be so much less without them.

And what a tribute to all of them, and to James Brown and The Supremes' late star Florence Ballard, that audiences are lining up today to see "Dreamgirls." It's the closest we've ever gotten on the big screen to even an approximate depiction of the tough lives and sacrifices these great performers made while others lived off their successes.

Oscar Ballots Mailed Tuesday

Ballots for the 2007 Academy Award nominations are being mailed this morning to the 5,000-plus members. They have to be returned by Jan. 13, and results will be announced on Jan. 31. The Oscar telecast, produced this year by the terrific Laura Ziskin and hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, airs Feb. 25 on ABC.

This should be a confusing year for Oscar voters, with lots of great supporting players in all categories and maybe not quite enough lead actors as they’re used to. The Academy members will also have to decide if they want to put their stamp on this year’s nominees and teach a lesson to the so-called Hollywood Foreign Press and their Golden Globe nominations.

The Globes, for example, are already trying to move away from the sensational “Dreamgirls,” even as box office returns today will show it had a phenomenal opening weekend. But “Dreamgirls,” directed by Bill Condon, should be an Academy favorite, with nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Costumes, Makeup, Production, Song, Sound and Editing, at the very least.

“Dreamgirls,” as I predicted last May, is the film to beat at this year’s show.

My other top choices for Best Picture are: Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen.”

Going to the next level, numbers six through 10, my choices are “Notes on a Scandal,” directed by Richard Eyre; “Bobby,” directed by Emilio Estevez; “Borat,” directed by Larry Charles; “World Trade Center,” directed by Oliver Stone and “The Last King of Scotland,” directed by Kevin MacDonald.

I did not choose Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Babel.” I don’t mind going out on a limb and saying I am not a particular fan of this film. It felt pretentious; a lot like a bad Robert Altman movie, or even “Crash” lite. I know that some people swear by this film, but really, “Babel” makes little to no sense. The parts that work — the Japanese girl’s (Rinko Kinkuchi) story and the performance by Adriana Barraza as Amelia, the Mexican maid — are not strong enough to overcome the basic lack of logic of it all.

However, if I had to bet, I’d say that “Babel” will earn a spot as a Best Picture nominee. It already has inexplicable momentum. My own “fifth choice,” Almodovar’s “Volver,” will probably be relegated to the Foreign Film section. Even though it will win, it's too bad. Everything about “Volver” suggests a Best Picture nomination. Years from now, this most accessible of an Almodovar film, with sublime performances from Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, among others, will be remembered for more artistry than “Babel.”

Ironically, much of the babble in “Babel” is spoken in other languages. There are huge portions in Japanese, Spanish, Moroccan and insolent Yuppie. (The latter is the primary tongue of Brad Pitt’s character as he tells the maid to stay with his kids even though she has urgent personal business.)

Where “Babel” is heavy and contrived, “Volver,” on the other hand, is light and nimble. Almodovar is never at a loss mixing fable with fabulous, or drama (a man, after all, is killed) with the comic (he’s then stored in a freezer as an afterthought). Cruz is maybe at a loss here with the Academy. She’s made some bad movies in English. She has a tabloid history with questionable men. But if you can get beyond that, to the real artistry of “Volver,” the results are disarming. I only hope she and Almodovar can do it again, and that she is able to find more Spanish directors who can tap into her wonderful combination of humor and sexuality.

So let the Oscar race begin officially. Tomorrow: choices for Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

Jacko In Vegas Unlikely

Michael Jackson, who studied James Brown's dance moves and desperately wanted to be him as a child, is probably not coming to Las Vegas as reported over the weekend.

Jackson, who's been staying in Ireland, is terrified of returning to the U.S. and doesn't actually want to work. So coming to Vegas over Christmas and promising to put on a show there à la Celine Dion is unlikely.

Jackson has been convinced by his primary connection to the world, his three children's nanny Grace Rwaramba, that he would be arrested for something if he set foot in the U.S. Sources tell me that Jackson has not spoken to any members of his own family since he left the U.S. for Bahrain in June 2005 following his acquittal on charges of child molestation and conspiracy.

As late as last week, I was being told by those familiar with the situation that Rwaramba and Jackson's latest manager, Raymone Bain, were threatening friends of the singer with arrest if they tried to visit him in Ireland. And while there have been fleeting reports of Jackson working with contemporary hit-makers on a new record, there's no confirmation of it.

More recently, Jackson backed out of a promotional trip to Japan that was set for Dec. 19. Ten days earlier he had confirmed the trip, making the whole thing as wacky as ever in his world. Bain then announced Jackson would make the Japan trip in March, and charge $3,400 per person for fans to meet him. Bain obviously subscribes to the adage that "there's a sucker born every minute."

Meanwhile, should Jackson return to the U.S., he would be inundated with process servers in a number of civil matters. Chief among them: a $48 million lawsuit that's proceeding through the New York courts. Several former attorneys are also suing him for non-payment of fees. And a return to America would make him vulnerable in his ongoing, and as yet unsettled, custody case with ex-wife Debbie Rowe .

No matter what's been announced, I can tell you that the situation is not resolved as reported.

Smokey At The Kennedy Center

You have probably read a lot about Jessica Simpson's botched performance in honor of Dolly Parton for the Kennedy Center Honors. But don't miss tonight's show for Smokey Robinson and the tributes performed for him by "Soul Man" Sam Moore, 71, and Johnny Lang, 25. Moore is nominated for the second Grammy of his life this winter, and you'll see why in this show. Lang is also an inspired choice.