From the start of Get On Up, James Brown’s life is reduced to the plastic clichés of music biography.
Get On Up, directed by Tate Taylor. At multiplexes around New England.
By Tim Jackson
It is difficult to make a straightforward narrative biopic these days. There are already so many remarkable fact-based documentaries on the lives of artists and performers that offer rare footage, insight, and revealing interviews. Fictionalized biographies these days demand an unusual sense of authenticity, a fresh characterization, or a uniquely stylized take on the subject. William Bendix as Babe Ruth or Tony Curtis as Houdini just don’t pass muster. We don’t really know Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerburg, so Aaron Sorkin’s reimagining of him in The Social Network uses his story to explore classic themes of friendship, loyalty, class, jealously and power. Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Chuck Barris’s book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind shows Barris’s unlikely life in terms of failure, humiliation, paranoia, betrayal, and murder. The best music film biographies combine strong directorial style, great central performances, and the willingness to show a dark side. They let the audience into the soul of the subject: think Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious; Angela Bassett as Tina Turner; Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.
Get On Up, the film biography of James Brown, the late great Godfather of Soul, features Chadwick Boseman, who was so good as Jackie Robinson in 42. With the help of some great wigs and jaw make up (false bottom teeth?), he ends up supplying a serviceable James Brown. He embodies the swagger and the walk of the icon, and he masters the dance moves well. He’s got the rasp in Brown’s voice and is near perfect at lip-synching to the star’s concert footage. The film’s crippling problem is not his performance, but director Tate Taylor’s stiff and literal style, which is at the service of a flawed script (by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) that attempts to ring every bit of sympathy and melodramatic emotion out of prolonged and contrived confrontations. Get On Up, to a fault, cuts between Brown’s past and present, always for the sake of uncovering deep and dark secrets. From the start, the singer’s life is reduced to the plastic clichés of music biography: a deprived background and broken family give way to an exposure to gospel singing, the arrival of the hubris of stardom, and the eventual discovery (on cue) of a lost inner child. These parts of Brown’s experience may be based on fact, but they are too predictably paraded out for the sake of pumped-up bathos.
Brown’s genius, beyond his drop-dead showmanship, was his synthesis of funk and soul music: he sat on the groove, revving up the audience on the model of a gospel-infused church service. He maintained a successful career into his ’70s, but the movie never gives us a sense of how he kept his life going while his behavior became increasingly wretched. There was a long down period in his career: he beat his wife, abused his musicians, and had issues with drugs. These discouraging facts are conveyed anecdotally in the film — they are not used, dramatically, to deepen our understanding of the man.
The supporting cast should have been instructed to underplay in this film, given that it is Boseman’s show. That is not always the case. Dan Aykroyd needed to be pulled back in his performance as Ben Bart, Brown’s first manager. Viola Davis cries a lot as his distant mother. More believable is Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, the founder of the Famous Flames, a singer in his own right, and the star’s faithful support. He left Brown in 1973 — unfortunately, that crucial part of the story is marginalized. Jill Scott gives a nicely understated performance as Brown’s second wife.
The facile psychology, leaps between past and present, and obligatory melodrama are disappointing, as is the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, in which Brown addresses the viewer. In Jersey Boys the latter technique worked because the film was presented, more or less, as a piece of theater. In Get On Up the chats are jarring.
Still, audience for Get On Up will no doubt be forgiving because there are lots of big emotional payoffs and plenty of music. The filmmakers, with the help of producer Mick Jagger, had access to James Brown’s amazing repertoire. His estate signed off on the film’s depiction of Brown as well as on the rights to his music (though his ex-wife and his kids are in a battle about his estate). Assume that, in a film as commercial as this, family members were given assurances that embarrassing details about the more unsavory parts of Brown’s life would be minimized. The result: we could use much more on what went into developing and sustaining such a unique creative career in a tough business. The music grooves throughout Get on Up, so we are reminded that Brown remains one of America’s greatest showmen — but we still don’t know what made the man tick.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.