Godfather of Soul James Brown navigated more than 60 tumultuous and triumphant years in show business before his death Christmas Day 2006. I know that date because my best friends were huge Brown fans and were in Louisiana when news of Brown’s death went global. Its for them I hunted down Get On Up—director Tate Taylor’s (and producer Mick Jagger’s) shimmy through Brown’s life and career.
Brown’s passionate and rebellious life is too immense and complex for any single film to do justice. One of the founding fathers of funk and soul music, he directly, arrogantly confronted racism, wrote socially conscious songs, kept peace at concerts during the civil rights movement, was a shrewd businessman. To call him one of the greatest entertainers of all time almost feels reductive.
Get On Up, Brown’s official bio-pic –loaded as it is with his music– is a disappointing and frustrating watch, despite the muscular and competent work by lead Chadwick Boseman. The film begins delving into the back-story around an indignant Brown’s infamous 1988 high speed police chase in Georgia. Brown crashes a business meeting armed with a loaded shotgun and angered that anyone would drop a deuce in his office bathroom. No kidding. From there we hopscotch non-sequentially through major events in Brown’s life; his upbringing by abusive parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James) in the Carolina backwoods, his being sent to a reformatory prison for stealing a suit where he’d meet future partner and bandleader Bobby Byrd (True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis), his exposure to revival churches and preachers and the origin of his legendary Cape Act, to the birth of The Famous Flames and so on.
The film doesn’t work as hard in storytelling as Brown would as an entertainer. The script, helmed by brothers Jez and John Henry Butterworth feels rushed, abbreviated, summarized and should have seen a couple more drafts. It feels like the screenwriters skimmed through Brown’s biography without ever sitting to read it. It hits momentous occasions in his career (recording at the Apollo, performing before the Rolling Stones at the TAMI Show) without any meaty connective tissue to engage us with the character’s pain and triumph. And to make matters more awkward, the film has the awful habit of letting Brown’s character speak directly to camera—telling us what’s going on inside his head without doing the work of ‘showing us’ the impact of what any of the events mean.
I sound dismissive, but the film is NOT a waste—liberal use of Brown’s original music and the kinetic lead performance of Chadwick Boseman carries the weight. Boseman starred as Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film 42 and will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as The Black Panther in a couple of years. I can’t wait for it. Boseman shows incredible commitment as an actor and is dynamic. Brown was larger than life and deserved someone like Boseman who could embody his all encompassing ego without spinning too far off the rails. Boseman nails Brown, even attempting Brown’s signature footwork, which to think about it probably couldn’t be done justice using CGI.
Yet and still, Boseman deserved a stronger picture.
Boseman keeps Get On Up from veering easily into self parody. Consider an early scene of Brown flying into Vietnam to perform for the troops only to have the planes engine shot into flames. Even with the burning propeller, Brown can’t be bothered by the threat of death. He offers back story to the pilot telling him he was born dead, not breathing, and he obviously ain’t going down like no sucker in a plane crash. True or not, the scene almost could have been a deleted scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Many of the films costars have what feels like iconic placeholder roles. Craig Robinson is wasted though he makes a great Maseo Parker. Jill Scott as Brown’s second wife DeeDee is similarly disposable in a couple of scenes where she’s little more than just sexy, the film happy to stop at two of Brown’s four ex-wives. Late in the film, there’s a confrontation between bandleader Byrd and Brown in an empty auditorium. It should have been one of the film’s highlights, allowing Ellis and Boseman to go head to head. But writing leaves them floundering. Dan Aykroyd, here at Brown’s generic mentor/manager Ben Bratt, certainly had more fun alongside the real James Brown during his cameos in the Blues Brothers films. Here he just leads us like a waiter to plot points. And the aftermath of his exit from the film struck me as invented and unlikely. Better is Viola Davis as Brown’s estranged and troubled mother, Susie. She powers thru her brief scenes with great tenacity. Her backstage scene with beautiful son Boseman is the closest the film gets to being touching and is awesome to behold. As is the sequence of Brown calming down a stadium full of people Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
See it for Chadwick Boseman’s Atlas-like performance and the music. Brown is a musical deity having lived an incredible life. I’ll have to read Brown’s biography to get a deeper appreciation of his life, his achievements, his influence in hip hop, his struggle over family and drugs. Brown paid the cost to be the boss. The film? Not so much. He was the hardest working man in show business. There’s no telling how much he might fine the filmmakers if he were alive today.