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During the course of Tate Taylor's rambunctious, unwieldy Get On Up, it soon becomes clear that the film is going to follow the usual biopic steps. But the very first scene, at least, is one you may never forget. A depressing corporate meeting is being held in a James Brown electronic superstore in the late eighties, where one (potential?) employee is in the bathroom, having what we soon learn is a bowel movement. The matching action allows for Brown's music to play over the soundtrack while the meeting rolls on ineffectually, as this woman writhes on the toilet seat, and as a clearly-intoxicated and medicated Brown speeds to the location in his truck. In this moment, the movie conflates Brown's artistry and his downfall with both transgression (the initial moment seems to imply masturbation, her legs crossed underneath the stall, panties around the ankles) and scatology. If Taylor has proven anything with his previous film The Help, which featured an entire subplot about pies made of fecal matter, it's that he's truly not afraid to embrace the lowbrow aesthetics of every day life. This is the James Brown movie that John Waters will adore.
The script, from writing partners Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge Of Tomorrow), soon settles into a familiar groove: here's Brown meeting Maceo Parker; here's Brown during his drugged-up fall from grace; here's the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shooting; etc. But what Taylor and star Chadwick Boseman seem to do with the material is infuse it with a little added flavor that isn't on the page.
That first scene provides an audacious entrance for Boseman, playing an aged and diminished personality. The rambling delivery of the real Brown is more scattered, as he sweats profusely, brandishing a shotgun as he engages in a monologue about bowel movements with no beginning and no end. It's as if he's started his speech, and intends to finish it, in his sleep. Boseman has that squinty-eyed meanness that Brown frequently showed off when he wasn't performing, with a stare that felt like a dagger. Boseman's smile isn't quite as warm, so you trust this Brown just a little less than his real-life counterpart. Later, he'll dance, and you'll forget Brown didn't teach him the moves himself.
The chronology of the film moves back and forth through time, often sloppily. It's like riding a jalopy with a superb jukebox. During select moments, Boseman's Brown breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, legitimately walking away from his own story. It's a funny tactic. Early on, it's broadly showcased when Brown suddenly realizes he's performing I Feel Good in a Christmas sweater surrounded by a sea of white people. It's probably the older Brown within the younger Brown who stops, literally taking the character away from this scene and onto a stage, where the movie frequently comes alive. In another moment, as Brown is beginning to learn how to game the system to make more profit from live shows, Brown gets up and walks away from his own film as his conversation partner (a very-good Dan Aykroyd) rambles on to himself. The third act largely sidesteps this tactic for more straightforward melodramatics, but you keep wondering why Brown just doesn't split completely.
Ultimately, the film is a love story, though we learn little about Brown's four marriages. Instead, it's the relationship between Brown and band-mate Bobby Byrd. Byrd is played by Nelsan Ellis, an actor so smooth it's as if he was dipped in butter. Boseman's Brown is a crude showman in the film, barely a student of the music compared to the more studious Byrd. But Brown abuses his relationship with Byrd, with Byrd accepting the price for riding the gravy train. Ellis brings a striking sensitivity to Byrd, and he earns most of the movie's sympathies as Brown becomes a careless, rampaging self-saboteur. Brown's story has no real ending, as he didn't necessarily learn the error of his ways, he didn't repent, he simply performed until the end. But, in Byrd, the film finds redemption for the Godfather Of Soul.
There's a lawlessness to the emotionality on display here. One approach to making this film would have been to depict Brown as the raging pitbull some considered him to be backstage. Some of that shines through – he's monstrously abusive to his wife, neglectful of his band, and a tireless self-promoter. But if anything this is more of a cautionary tale about capitalism, about Brown coming from the bottom and seeking to assert his dominance with success. That complicates the morality of the piece on numerous occasions: Brown is roused to action by Little Richard's (Brandon Smith) cries against the “white devil”, but when Brown uses the term in a meeting with his manager (Aykroyd), he's politely but firmly scolded. Propriety will hold sway, just as we're here making money. It's even shaded in his childhood years. Brown's father (Lennie James) is depicted as an un-redeemable drunken monster, and in one scene he delivers a totally unwarranted backhand across young James' face. The boy's reaction is to sprint into the woods, where he comes face to face with the camera and something unexpected happens: he smiles. In this very small gesture, Taylor smartly explores the complex nature of traumatic memories and the myth of an innocent childhood.
Unfortunately, entire swaths of the film feel compromised, likely indicative of the Brown estate getting involved with the film. Few things are as off-putting as the daring match cut from adult Brown's dancing feet to the poor Brown's desperate yanking of a pair of shoes from a lynched black man. But aside from a brief shot of them sitting on a table, waiting to be ingested, drugs are largely ignored, and after a randy youth, sex is limited to offscreen. It's audacious to begin a film in this way, with the older, coked-up Brown spinning a shotgun in his hands while wearing sweats. The disappointment is that the movie expects to create mystery as to how he gets there, and those answers end up being the simplest ones out there.