Get On Up
Directed by Tate Taylor
Just who the hell was James Brown anyway? I mean, like, inside? You’ll never know from watching Get On Up. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun—look whose biopic this is. Skipping back and forth from his hellish Georgia/South Carolina childhood of brothels and alternately abusive and absent
parents to his various adult personae in time frames that range from the early 40s to the early 90s, the movie deftly portrays James Brown as, in accordance with his legend, the “hardest working man in show business,” the impresario of polyrhythms, Soul Brother #1, and the Godfather of Soul, the man who took the building blocks of R&B, soul and Bootsy Collins’s LSD-doing ass and invented funk. The movie captures the spirit of all that in brisk and entertaining Cliffs Notes fashion.
Chadwick Boseman, Hollywood’s newly anointed “man you’ve never heard of who will play historically important black men in sanitized studio pictures until he actually becomes Denzel Washington-level famous,” is as rip-roaring as the role demands, giving a more than passable Brown impersonation and having as much fun as such a task suggests, whether he’s smoking PCP-laced herb in a green track suit or doing the splits in a snow-bunny sweater. Of course it’s all for naught, really, although he does a fine job of auditioning for his next role; like Notorious before it, this picture is veiled black music industry hagiography, a vapid Hollywood entertainment straight from the bowels of the SoCal dream machine. Ain’t no Cadillac Records, that’s for sure, Muddy. And Tate Taylor ain’t no Darnell Martin.
I won’t ponder what latter-day, washed-up Spike Lee would have made of this material (Slate claimed in 2012 that he was fired by producer Brian Grazer before The Help’s Tate Taylor took over the production; Grazer claims it was all a rights issue), but someone, anyone, could have tried to suggest Brown’s enigma with more nuance, if not more panache. Brown lived enough life for two miniseries, so I can’t hold it against Taylor or his screenwriters the Butterworth Brothers (Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game) that they’re struggling to cover all the bases and in the process forget to have a theory about the man. Oh wait, I can.
The movie makes sure we know that this version of Brown beat his wife (if not that he was a serial wifebeater). After the most heinous episode, played in an effective long take, he looks right at the lens, as he does many times in this movie in which he narrates his own legend as a fourth-wall-breaking adult (but not as an abused child), and, for once, has nothing to express but a grimace, so that one knows we (and he) shouldn’t approve. The movie doesn’t have enough intellectual heft to deal with the contradiction of a Brown that was both “black and proud” and a dear compadre of Strom Thurmond, his only enduring friendship according to the 2012 biography The One, so Bobby Byrd, Soul Brother #2, becomes Brown’s principal foil, BFF, moral conscience, etc. It’s a more thankless role in the movie than it was in real life, I’m sure, but like seemingly everyone else in this picture, Nelsan Ellis is trying really hard and looks good in a conk. Say It Loud!
Opens August 1