An excitingly propulsive primer on the life of James Brown. But as Brown himself once asked (in song), “Where’s Fred?”
By Chaz Lipp
In telling the story of James Brown in Get on Up, director Tate Taylor has crafted an exhilarating, emotional, and daring biopic. As with any film about a real-life figure, one’s reaction to it will inevitably be influenced by how much knowledge of the subject one brings to it. Compressing Brown’s 73 years into two hours and 20 minutes is a daunting task. Considering he was as singularly important to popular music as any artist of the past 60 years (a strong case can be made for him being the most important), Brown’s life deserves the space afforded by a multi-part series. But after years in development, the end result is a captivating stunner, anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul.
Get on Up’s most audacious move is its aggressively non-linear structure. Perhaps employed in part to avoid the often-fabricated/over-simplified transitional scenes that usually hamper “true life stories” (the shorthand storytelling that helps move the subject’s life from point A, to B, etc), Taylor takes on a whirlwind ride that yanks us back and forth in time. Occasionally things get downright surrealist. For instance, the moment a very young James Brown (Jamarion & Jordan Scott shared the role of Brown as a child), one arm tied behind his back as he’s forced to participate in a blindfolded boxing match for the amusement of rich, white onlookers, removes his blindfold after being violently decked. The black Dixieland jazz band he sees suddenly launches into one of Brown’s furiously funky future hits right before his dazed eyes. We see quite a bit of Brown as a child; abused, abandoned, forced to shill for johns at his Aunt Honey’s (Octavia Spencer) brothel (in which he lived).
Taylor (along with screenwriters Jez & John-Henry Butterworth) introduces a thesis early on. Brown is depicted as a man whose demons were implanted at a young age. They suggest that Brown essentially suffered from attachment disorder and never developed the interpersonal skills necessary for building meaningful, trusted, and loving relationships. He learned to abuse women from a father (Lennie James) who threatened to kill his mother (Viola Davis). He bullied and demeaned his own closest friends, including Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the singer who discovered Brown as a teenage prisoner, helped him develop his talent, and later became his stalwart right hand in a series of monumentally influential bands. Taylor shows as why Brown’s insistence on being addressed as “Mr. Brown” – even by the likes of stars like Frankie Avalon (Aaron Jay Rome) – was no mere reflection of his egotistical vanity. He earned the respect that he commanded by emerging as a truly self-made man from the direst poverty and racial discrimination.
Get on Up gets so much right, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. For reasons unknown, groundbreaking trombonist Fred Wesley – musical director of the JB’s in the ‘70s – is nowhere to be found. He’s not mentioned once – he’s been completely written out of Brown’s history. I can’t speculate as to the reasons for the omission, but any discussion of Brown’s music is woefully incomplete without taking into account Wesley’s impact.
Maceo Parker is, however, accounted for – yet he’s treated as a mere sideman who seems confused during a rehearsal of “Cold Sweat.” Parker’s solo during that iconic funk classic is legendary, yet for any viewer completely new to Brown’s story, Parker will likely come across like a dispensable whiner. In fact, we never even once hear Brown declare, “Maceo, I want you to blow!” during the concert sequences. No fault to Craig Robinson’s performance, he was working with what he was given (he was miscast, however, looking for more like Wesley as a matter of fact). “Cold Sweat” co-writer/co-arranger Pee Wee Ellis (Tariq Trotter) is given even less dramatic weight. While Wesley wasn’t in Brown’s band yet when “Cold Sweat” was recorded, he’s not represented during the years in which he was in the band (his first session, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” is depicted, sans Wesley).
Now, about those on-stage performances… Boseman achieved the seemingly impossible task of convincingly executing Brown’s supernatural performing abilities. Maybe some of it was down to slick editing, but Boseman offers a seamless facsimile of Brown’s signature moves and indomitable energy. There’s precious little surviving pro-shot footage of Brown during his peak ‘60s years, which makes it doubly spectacular to see the high-octane reenactments staged so well. Boseman so flawlessly captures Brown’s unique speech patterns that we never once question the transition between his talking and lip-syncing to actual Brown vocals. But what Boseman offers goes well beyond mere mimicry – this is a flesh and blood performance, with a raw, visceral exploration of Brown’s tortured psyche laid bare. Boseman transitions from visionary young man to tragedy-stricken middle-age with astonishing believability. Again, the movie has to cram in too much to avoid sometimes jarringly abrupt transitions, but Boseman makes us believe we’re watching an actual decline as Brown ages and his world crumbles under the onset of his unusually late-in-life substance abuse.
Nelsan Ellis is the very definition of exemplary supporting work as Bobby Byrd. Though the very real success of Byrd as a frontman in his own right is given short-shrift for dramatic purposes, Ellis’ Byrd is a deeply sympathetic creation. Dan Aykroyd has a number of effective moments as Brown’s early-career manager Ben Bart. It’s, of course, a neat bit of casting considering Aykroyd helped resurrect the real James Brown’s sagging career with early-‘80s roles in The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit (Brown also appeared in the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000). Allison Janney pops up in a devastating cameo as racist Kathy who, while vacationing with p-whipped hubby Richard (John Benjamin Hickey), condescendingly, mockingly dances to Brown’s music (overheard while the band practices) without understanding one lick about its artistic significance.
And that points to what is probably the best accomplishment of Tate Taylor, the Butterworth’s, and producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger’s work: Get on Up offers a solid introduction to why James Brown was such an important figure. While Brown’s political and community activism is merely touched upon, the filmmakers have crammed in just enough of everything that made Brown a galvanizing artist. For those who want to know more about the music, there are scores of records to listen to. For those wanting more details about all aspects of his life, there are biographies (start with RJ Smith’s The One). But Get on Up at least touches on most of the necessary bases, whetting the appetite for more knowledge and appreciation of the “hardest working man in show business.”