by Philip Price
When it comes to biopics of famous musicians they are a tough act to pull off these days. The formula is well known by now: the drive as a young artist, the obtaining of fame, the inevitable fall and the career redemption and life reflection in the final act. We can see the beats coming from a mile away and so it was with caution that I approached the story of James Brown in “Get On Up” from the director of “The Help,” Tate Taylor. While being cautious though it is difficult for me to not get caught up in these types of films and especially this one as I'm a big fan of funk music and was looking forward to how Taylor might encapsulate the full span of a life as tumultuous as Brown's. There was a manic energy to the entertainer that he seemed to carry with him everywhere that he clearly poured into his stage show, a place where he arguably felt more at home than anywhere else. I draw attention to this characteristic because it is an important quality in any entertainer and yet in the majority of these biopics there seems to be little focus on their passion for the music, but rather on the drama of their personal lives. No, this film is being made about this person because they became significant enough in their field for an entire film to be centered around them and so why don't we focus on what pushed them to such significance? With a nickname like "The Hardest Working Man in Showbiz" though it would have been difficult for a James Brown film to avoid the man’s drive and passion which was purely the music and the performance that came along with it. There are scenes wholly dedicated to Brown's interpretation of a rhythm, his thought process on where it could go and his imagining of what he needs to feel in order to get himself and his audience on their feet. It is a testament to screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth as well as director Taylor that they have not delivered a vanilla film in the vein of what we have seen before from this genre, but more something that skips through time highlighting the scope of Brown's varied life in non-linear fashion that culminates in an experience that feels it may actually justify the real man.
We begin in 1988 with the incident of Brown walking into an insurance meeting at a company he owns and firing off a shotgun because someone used his toilet. The film literally starts with a bang. We are then transitioned to the ‘60s as Brown and a reduced number of his band members are flying to Vietnam to put on a show for the troops. More bangs. Things start to quiet down as we move to the late ‘30s in the backwoods of South Carolina where we meet his abusive father (Lennie James) and his mother (Viola Davis) who eventually abandons him. The film keeps with this kind of sporadic structure, if that makes sense, and in many ways is the difference between what could have been a rather boring film and one that takes on the persona of its subject in that it mimics Brown's ever-evolving style and tone. We are taken through to when James' father drops him off with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) who runs a brothel and sells illegal moonshine and has James (referred to as little junior here) dancing at the bus stops where the soldiers dock for the night in attempts to get them to come visit their pretty girls. The next scene might have us front and center with Brown and his Famous Flames as they are demoted from headliner to opening act as a pre-fame Rolling Stones want to close the show and Chadwick Boseman as Brown addresses us directly so we get the sense the stories we are hearing are coming straight from his perspective. The film then cuts back to the late ‘40s as a 17 year-old Brown is put in jail for trying to steal a man’s three-piece suit and might end up with an eight to 16 year sentence for it. While serving his time though he becomes more in tune with gospel music, something he seemingly hasn't been connected with since wondering into the local Baptist church and seeing the preacher "perform" when he was a young boy. Through the music he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis in as affecting a performance as Boseman), an aspiring singer, who convinces his parents to let James move in with them. The core of the film is Brown's drive and the size of his necessary ego to go from where he started to what he became, but the relationships formed between he and Byrd as well as with his long time manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd in a nice nod given it was his idea to include the real Brown in the original “Blues Brothers”) serve as high points that help shape the kind of man and businessman Brown was.
James Brown was known by many names. In this review so far it has been noted that he had at least two different nicknames, but there are plenty more. When he was a teenager in prison he was known as "Musicbox", on the road in the ‘50s he was referred to as "Mr. Dynamite", then came the aforementioned "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" title. He became "Soul Brother No. 1" in the ‘60s for his activism and in the era of disco and the following decade he was referred to as "The Minister of the New Super-Heavy Funk" as his influence became apparent in the hip-hop community eventually leading to the title of the "Godfather of Soul." It is in these titles, these markings that “Get On Up” draws its storytelling flair that categorizes the time periods by the stage of its subject as an entertainer. It is refreshing to not have to witness the aforementioned formula for these types of films in order of how we expect to see them and while the film doesn't spend much time of Brown's drug or tax problems it instead chooses to focus on his work ethic. As I witnessed the film unfold I began to wonder how much Taylor wanted his movie to come across as a piece that idolized the man at the center of it all for the innovations and strides he made not only in the music business, but in the black community or whether he simply felt the need to capture an unadulterated look at who this man was without padding the turbulent and tough times the singer faced. It became clear Brown wanted to be a good person and was always well-intentioned, but that he could be just as tyrannical (his closed rehearsals where he fined members if they messed up, his abuse towards second wife Deedee as played by Jill Scott) as he was generous (handing out money to the community on Christmas, making sure his mother was taken care of despite her abandoning him). Some of the more interesting filmmaking choices on display here result in the answer to my question for Taylor. When he inserts the young actor playing Brown into certain moments such as when he climbs out of his truck in 1988 after a high-speed police chase it gives the audience an insight into the emotions and state of mind the character is in. How much of the film succeeds can certainly be attributed to Boseman's show-stopping performance, but it is little ticks such as this that help with the empathy we feel for Brown.
Speaking of Boseman, it is without a doubt his performance elevates the film from an interesting experiment in editing and performance numbers to something more real and raw. The scene in which Brown performs in Paris with a brand new band after letting his others go if not for a sense of pride or ego, but to teach them a lesson is the epitome of the film and the energy it is able to convey. Taylor flashes back between the performance of Boseman as Brown and a flood of small highlights that have built him to this moment in a way that feels completely organic. The scenes of the aforementioned rehearsals in which Brown became the ultimate perfectionist give way to Boseman constructing songs and rhythms out of nothing-his band members including Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and Pee Wee Eliis (Tariq Trotter) being pushed from their conventional thoughts of musicality and into the range of simply what feels good and what sounds right without getting caught up in the technicalities is a wonder to behold. What Boseman is especially good at playing though is the darker side of Brown. When it comes to holding back in front of his older mother after his famed show at the Apollo and breaking down after she exits the emotion is there and we understand what we are supposed to feel, but when true feelings are actually conjured up it is when we see Brown talking with Byrd about why he would try to upstage him. Instead of the film focusing on the many marriages, multiple children or much of the historical context in which Brown's career flourished the film decides to put a good amount of focus on the relationship between Byrd and Brown. After all, if it wasn't for Byrd we may have never come to know Mr. Brown as he is thought of today. In this relationship Byrd was the original one with the ambition, but realized from the moment he met Brown that he could never match his talent and from then on flew under the radar, just on the outskirts of the glow of the headliner yet never managed to falter in his loyalty. So, when Byrd expresses his interest in a solo record and performance the paranoia and distrust that followed Brown his whole life sets in as he can't fathom the thought of someone being better than him. It is here the insight into Brown is most prevalent and Boseman plays these perfectionist, tyrannical, paranoid traits to infuse his stage performances to a point they never feel like imitation, but more second nature to a seasoned pro.