James Brown for Dummies — with a spot-on lead
Get on Up is a biography of a musical legend by Tate Taylor of The Help — a hint this won’t go for the tough stuff. The drug use, the frequent convictions, the wife beatings are severely soft-pedalled for the PG rating. James Brown, “Godfather of Soul,” had a legendary childhood of extreme poverty and abandonment, dumped first by his mother, then by his father, starting out in a cabin in the woods. The technical but “opaque”* lead performance by Chadwick Boseman pleases but does not fully satisfy emotionally. Bozeman makes Brown attractive, good enough to eat, like a shiny chocolate candy. His imitation of Brown’s speaking voice is expert, but not good enough to show feeling, and the words are not always clear. He astonishes and delights in the verve and brilliance with which he duplicates Brown’s dance movies, and the singing, though it;s lip-synched, always seems live. Whatever the shortcomings Bozeman and the music are the reasons for watching this movie. Get on Up founders as a biopic even as it strives to avoid its clichés. Its scrambled chronology short-circuits emotional resonance and adds to confusion about whether this is meant to be serious or a shimmering joke.
The first scene is in 1988, a crazy act of paranoia and police car chase that got Brown jailed. This is followed by an even flashier and literally explosive scene in the Sixties flying to Vietnam to entertain troops when the star’s plane came under heavy fire en route to the gig. Throughout the movie many inter-titles of dates and epithets to introduce new chronologies fail to control the sense of dislocation the scrambling creates.
Not that there aren’t great scenes and lot of history and not that there’s no “boyhood of the legend” part. In fact the boy James Brown (played, touchingly, by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) is slipped into adult scenes of James Brown at his peak of fame, even as, for irony or a contemporary note, the adult Brown turns to the audience frequently to wink or tell us something. After Vietnam, we see little James’s parents, living in a cabin in the Carolina woods, tussle over who’d get to keep the boy, then his mother (Viola Davis) walks off not to be seen again till a rueful bitter encounter backstage at the Apollo long afterwards. Bereft of family, exploited as a kid as a whore house huckster, as a young adult he winds up in jail for five to fifteen years for “robbing a suit,” and is rescued for parole by fellow music man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), taken into Byrd’s big family. Earlier he has bunked at the brothel where he was dumped by his dad, where he’s mothered by the madam, known as Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who predicts he’ll one day be famous. Bear in mind that the chronology comes and goes.
One of the gems is the scene where nascent star Little Richard (snappy looking Brandon Smith), in a fast food restaurant where he works, gives James advice on how to make acetate records and distribute them to get known, and the gay flirtatiousness is palpable, and fun. But apart from the sad rejection of his mother backstage at the Apollo, the only scenes with recurrent emotional heft are those of acceptance and rejection between Brown and Bobby Byrd, his (almost) lifelong friend and co-performer. Ellis is nearly the only actor one can emotionally identify with. Scott Foundas in Variety notes that Brown and Byrd’s “fractious codependency is one of the few aspects of ‘Get on Up’ that feels truly raw and unvarnished.” Ellis, Foundas goes on, “becomes a kind of Salieri to Boseman’s pompadoured Mozart, the good man at once entranced and singed by the great man’s bright-burning flame.” The tragedy of this that transcends cliché because of Ellis’ sincerity and restraint is the only wisdom to be gleaned from Get on Up.
Except, that is, for the opportunity to soak up Brown’s musical and performance art — and from the portrait of his workaholic, driven methods as a band leader and performer, notably in a memorable scene when he forces all his musicians to say their instruments are drums. You get a non-technical lesson on the uniqueness of what in one scene to a journalist he calls “James Brown music,” because it’s so new there’s no word for it. Hints are there too of Brown’s big contribution to funk in the Seventies, not to mention the influence on the Rolling Stones and other white groups, but the movie spares us explanations of how that played out. Groups like Funkadelic or the Family Stone might have been referenced, not to mention the later Miles Davis, but all that would be another movie. As the protagonist is monomaniacal, so is Get on Up. Brown’s world didn’t have room for sharing. Unfortunately this makes James Brown’s music seem more simplistic than it is. This is a James Brown for Dummies. For more detail about the musical side as well as a fuller description of the Brown-Little Richard encounter, see Armond White in Out.
*Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club.
Get on UP opened US 1 August 2014; France 24 September, the UK 21st November.
DIRECTOR: TATE TAYLOR
WRITERS: JEZ & JOHN-HENRY BUTTERWORTH
STARS: CHADWICK BOZEMAN, NELSON NELLIS, DAN AKROYD, VIOLA DAVIS, OCTAVIA SPENCER, LENNIE JAMES, FRED MELAMED, BRENDAN SMITH, JAMARION & JORDAN SCOTT
RUNTIME: 138 MINS APPROX