Updated Tue, Aug 26, 2014 9:44 am
While Get On Up leaves no biopic cliché to rest in the stables, it is still an exhilarating, colorful, kinetic whirlwind.
It's by the team who gave us The Help: Tate Taylor directs and Stephen Goldblatt wields the camera. Their imagery feels heightened, comic.
While the film has something of the feel of a Broadway show, where mythmaking cheerfully trumps fact, no stage show could leap around in time like this. Barely orienting us, the year appears in the bottom left of the frame, keyed to one of Brown's many sobriquets: "Soul Brother No. 1," "the Godfather of Soul," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," etc., etc. A framing device plays like a parody: Brown walks a lone, dark hall as voices from his life murmur.
Flash to 1988 when Brown, high on PCP and wielding a shotgun, terrorizes a conference. Flash to the backwoods of pre-war Jim Crow Georgia, to a dirt-poor boy in a clapboard cabin. His mama (Viola Davis) and his daddy (Lennie Davis) fight like wildcats, then she leaps into his arms. (Brown would repeat this perverse dynamic with the women in his life.)
Lynched black bodies dangle from the trees, and the boy can stand on tiptoes and wrest off a dead man's shoes. Mama takes off, and daddy thrashes him, mercilessly, routinely. The young boy's response to the brutality rained down on him is almost unimaginable: It is a megawatt smile, sometimes directed right at us, blooming across his face.
When war breaks out he goes to live with his aunt (Octavia Spencer). She's a madam at a whorehouse--tough, but she treats him tenderly. He'd duck down to the Pentecostal church, quaking with gospel music, where people shake off the devil in flowing white robes. Tate's camera shakes the devil off, too. In the flamboyant preacher Brown must have glimpsed his future stage show.
The movie is good at showing how Brown's feverish music sprung from African-American life. Flash to a plantation lawn party where young, blindfolded black boys box for the amusement of white guests. Punch-drunk on the mat, Brown imagines the ringside Dixieland band jump to their feet and start funkin' it up.
For "stealing a man's suit" he gets five-13 years in prison, and he meets Bobby Byrd in a scuffle during a performance by Byrd's jailhouse gospel quartet, which Brown would transform into the Famous Flames.
As Byrd, Nelsan Ellas has kind eyes. He emanates good-humored, gentle warmth, conveyed in those basso interjections of "Get on up!" he supplied on "Sex Machine." Brown's great blind spot was to mistake this man for a second banana, when he was really his only true loyal friend.
The movie's script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, contains lines that are great in their utter preposterousness. ("Don't tell me when, where, or for how long I can be funky," the unflappable Brown tells an authority in Vietnam, only moments after his plane, strafed by enemy fire, touches down in flames).
Their script has Brown spell things out, putatively for other characters' benefit but really more for ours, including his revolutionary musical strategy. ("Every instrument is a drum.")
He was headstrong, mercurial, the boss. He called other men "Mr." and he expected to be addressed similarly.
He was a hustler; a Bible fundamentalist. Control was everything to him.
He was a bully. The movie doesn't gloss over Brown's domestic violence. We hear the crack, and his wife (Jill Scott) falls crashing into the frame.
He deferred only to record industry men, where a relationship of mutual exploitation was expected, like his manager, Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd). The relationship with Bart became something deeper. A white man and a black man, they helped each other negotiate the tumult of the '60s. By the terminal days of that decade, Brown had enough respect from the community to quell rage from the stage, shown in an expertly handled scene where the air vibrates with the barely suppressed violence of the times.
He was canny, smart. So proud is Brown of how he took every aspect of show-business by the horns that he'll break the fourth wall to tell us about it. The movie dramatizes his uneasy mix of black power and capitalism. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.
Of course he was a legendary showman, a template for everyone from Springsteen to Jagger (who co-produced the movie), and it is in the performances that the movie comes alive. The groove fills your pants with ants and you need to dance, even if it's just right there in your seat.
This is a testament to Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. Few actors, save perhaps Robert Downey as Charlie Chaplin, have been called upon to portray a more physical icon. Boseman hits the slides, splits, the "no man alive can make me leave this stage" business with the cape. (My attempt later to have a go at that split at home proved unwise. It made me give it up to Boseman all the more.)
We see bits from the dynamite Live at the Apollo show in 1962 and the galvanic T.A.M.I show of 1964. We're in Brown's head as he lip-synchs "I Got You (I Feel Good)" on the set of Ski Party, a 1965 Avalon-Funicello picture, in comical red sweaters, when he looks around, realizes, "I'm on a honky hoedown!," and we explode into the song as performed in the '70s: jumped-up, feverish, as raw and black as it wants to be.
In the movie's most moving scene, Viola Davis shows up at her son's dressing room in what must be her best clothes, but her eyes show her years on the streets, and she gulps the champagne a bit too greedily. Davis conveys a mother's pride and love, twisted--but not entirely snuffed--by raw poverty, need, addiction. Davis finds the dignity in a life intersecting with a history of shame.
Boseman conveys the heartbreak of the boy, stilll playing with his mother in the woods, under the grown man's cemented idea of life as an exercise in mutual exploitation. Surrounded by cardboard cutouts, these people are flesh and blood.
Brown's famous megawatt smile was a mask, perhaps, and a sword, yes, but it was something else as well: He really did feel good.
I must report that while it skates along the surface, this celebratory, frenzied movie does the main job: It makes you feel the funk. Makes you feel good, in fact. I can think of no recent movie that made me more aware that I have a body.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other reviews at The Moving World.