Get On Up ✮✮✮
Papa’s Got a Secondhand Bag
by Glenn Lovell
If you’ve seen “Ray,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” chances are you’ll be familiar with much of “Get on Up.” The new James Brown biopic, as deliriously entertaining as it in stretches thanks to a limber, lip-syncing Chadwick Boseman, suffers the longueurs of the classic backstage drama. Hardscrabble youth? Check. Stint in a brothel a la Billie Holiday and Richard Pryor? Check. Spousal abuse born of an abusive father? Tearful, accusatory reunion with the mother who turned her back on the eight-year-old Brown? Uh-huh. Recording studio tirades as the Godfather of Soul gives vent to megalomania fueled by bitterness and paranoia? They’re here.
The only musical biopic cliché that director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) for the most part avoids is Brown’s later descent into drugs and alcohol. And even this, near the end of an overlong tribute, is toyed with in a manner that leaves the impression that other scenes of substance abuse were cut at the last minute.
As formulaic as it is in structure, “Get on Up” stays with you thanks to Boseman’s shrewd, powerhouse performance. Boseman, who last summer at this time played Jackie Robinson in “42,” is damn-near unrecognizable as Brown. His jaw protrudes in Don Corleone-like fashion; his voice is reduced to farrier-file rasp; his hair, depending on the year, is either Jheri-curled, frizzed, or piled high in the signature bouffant. If Boseman’s Robinson was a tightly wound legend-in-the-making, a reluctant “credit to his race” who fumed beneath the surface, the actor’s Brown is the real deal, a Mr. Dynamite who intimidates record producers even as he humiliates and exploits band members, forcing them to address him as “Mr. Brown” and pay petty fines. In one of the best sequences, as he’s performing a straitjacketed “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in one of those bad AIP youth pictures ‒ “Oh, hell, no,” he moans, “I’m in a honky hoedown” ‒ Brown wills himself into parallel universe. “We’re gonna have to take this and flip it,” he tells us, segueing into full-out performance mode before adoring black fans.
“Get on Up,” produced by Brown acolyte Mick Jagger, opens in 1988 as Brown is about to take the stage in his hometown of Augusta, and then flashes back and forward to his back-hills childhood, his arrests, his musical epiphany at a gospel service, his appearance in 1964 with the Rolling Stones on the T.A.M.I. show, his efforts to defuse an angry crowd after Martin Luther King’s assassination, his longtime friendship and inevitable falling out with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who fronted, briefly, their first band, the Famous Flames. Tonally, Taylor’s flits uncertainly from satirical to outlandishly comedic to unabashedly melodramatic. In places, Boseman breaks the fourth wall, delivering lines to us, the audience. This is a risky gimmick that usually backfires, but here, because it’s so much a part of Brown’s stage persona, it works, turning the viewer into complicitous sounding board. The Vietnam-tour vignette is so broadly played it could have been snatched from “Dr. Strangelove.” Brown, exiting a cargo plane still smoldering from enemy fire, dresses down a UFO liaison. “Want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?!” he asks the obviously flummoxed soldier.
Tate stumbles when he gets arty and purposely jumbles the chronology, in places subbing the scared little Jimmy for the grown James. This comes off as both self-conscious and pretentious. Ditto the symbolic hotel patrons (Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey) whose comments about swimming in the same pool as blacks are supposed to remind us that even in stardom Brown wasn’t immune to institutionalized racism.
Besides Boseman and Ellis, the large ensembles includes Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s Jewish mother-hen manager, Lennie James and Viola Davis as Brown’s worthless parents, Octavia Spencer as the custodial aunt-brothel madam, Jill Scott as the second of four wives, Craig Robinson as the most outspoken of the band members, Tika Sumpter as the backup singer who becomes Byrd’s wife, and a standout Brandon Smith as Little Richard, who acts as a sort of soothsayer, predicting Brown’s struggles with the “white devils” in business suits.
The key to Brown’s drive and need to control, according to Taylor and scenarists Jez and John-Henry Butterworth? Basic abandonment issues. He never forgot or forgave. “I’m James Brown ‒ I made a difference,” he trumpets. “Ain’t nobody not been touched by James Brown.”
As much as I wanted to love it, “Get on Up” just missed for me ‒ the performance sequences, for all the strutting and sweating, never really electrified. I think this is because the camera often isn’t positioned for maximum effect. Still, the film should be remembered come Oscar nomination time for Boseman’s star turn. His bellicose-to-embattled entertainer is that impressive.
GET ON UP ✮✮✮ With Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Otavia Spencer. Directed by Tate Taylor; scripted by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. 138 min. Rated PG-13 (for profanity, spousal abuse, adult situations)