by francine Hardaway on December 27, 2006

Happy New Year. As we head into the celebration, the nation is mourning various people: Gerald R. Ford, Frank Stanton, James Brown. Amazing constellation of deaths around Christmas.For me, the most important of these, of course, is James Brown.

Gerald Ford was our accidental president. He was never elected, and he knew it, so he kept a low profile. Until he decided to pardon President Nixon. When he did that, it was part of a broader strategy to restore decency and credibility to the presidency. Unfortunately, he didn’t succeed. Since Ford, one president after another has proven that a single individual cannot govern a democracy as broad and diverse as ours. Nixon might have been the first of the unseemly modern presidents, but there have been many to follow, even though Gerald Ford may have tried to stanch the flow of sleazy politics, fraud, not-so-secret philandering, squandered campaign promises, and big money influence. He was a sweet man, and I even understand why he pardoned Nixon, but he’s not a major figure in my pantheon of stars.

FranK Stanton, co-founder of CBS, comes closer. He had a somewhat heroic, if austere, respect for journalism, and under his guidance CBS News enjoyed an unequalled reputation. Unfortunately, he outlived himself and his era, and was around to see his baby become just a corporate behemoth just like every other network. He was 98 when he died (on Christmas, typically a slow news day).

But this Christmas was different, because when I woke up on Christmas morning, the Godfather of Soul was dead, and an otherwise slow morning on CNN was alive with soul.

I saw James Brown at the Apollo Theatre in New York when I was a kid, and I can remember seeing him many times afterward, always rising out of my seat and going nuts. They didn’t call him the hardest working man in show business for nothing. I, however, grew up in the Civil Rights movement, and what I remember most clearly about James Brown isn’t “Please, Please, Please” or ” I Feel Good,” which you can see on UTube, but the tremendously influential “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Brown was always an advocate for the black community, rather than a wealthy entertainer who turned his back on it. He may have been the Godfather of Soul, but he was the father of disco and the grandfather of hip-hop as well. That man could dance!

In that regard, I urge everybody to go see “Dreamgirls,” in which Eddie Murphy (you will never know it’s him) plays a character modeled after Brown, while Jamie Foxx plays Berry Gordy, the recording mogul who almost singlehandedly cause the crossover from race records to mainstream rock for a generation of Detroit musicians, most notably the Supremes. It was quite an era, and I was lucky to be of concert-going age during it.

But I urge you to see this film not because it is about civil rights or James Brown — it’s not — but because I’m not sure I have ever seen better performances out of a film cast. I was halfway through the film before I realized the lead character Deena Jones (or was that Diana Ross) was played by Beyonce Knowles. And I already told you about Eddie Murphy’s intensity. Most incredible is the American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, whose voice is so incredible that the audience in the theatre with me rose to its feet and gave her a standing ovation once in the middle of the film (at the end of her big number) and once during the credits at the end.

I used to be a film reviewer in my gay, mad youth. I hardly ever review films anymore, at least not publicly, because most of them suck. But “Dreamgirls” has drawn me back to a time when movies were cool. So now I can come out of mourning for movies.

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