The Godfather of Soul and Soul Searching
How long did Chadwick Boseman stand in front of a mirror in preparation to play James Brown? In Get on Up, he doesn’t just sing into his microphone, he makes love to it. He doesn’t just lip sync Brown’s real voice on stage, he really thinks he’s shouting every soulful moan and shriek. He’s not trying to sell you his performance because he’s convinced himself he’s James Brown, the real one, the one this movie is based on. Part of that relies on the transition from the bright lights of show business to the dimmer ones at home. The voice stays familiarly raspy. Boseman yells at his band and then jumps into a song. The switch is seamless. What you look for in biopics is a comfortable distinction, some assurance that the man being remembered is somewhat discernible from the actor portraying him. Besides a slightly different face, Boseman makes that discernment near impossible.
Part of the reason is helped along by the movie’s structure, which takes James Brown’s splintered life and splinters it up even more. It’s hard to find the narrative purpose for flashing back and forward over the course of Brown’s 73 years alive. We start out in a low point, when he barges into a workplace next to his studio and fires a shotgun into the ceiling, ostensibly high from something. Soon enough we’re backstage in Atlanta following Brown in a tunnel, listening to fans chant his name as he spins into his sequins and cape. We’re quickly escorted to the backwoods of Georgia where Brown is now eight years old, surviving a short, volatile, abusive stint between father and mother (Viola Davis), who eventually leaves him under the care of a moonshining whorehouse led by Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer).
Get on Up, directed by Tate Taylor, is a messy movie but it’s not a total mess. Unlike other biopics—J. Edgar, The Iron Lady— that follow a similar storytelling device, this one has a palpable energy in its focus. It doesn’t linger too much on extraneous details. Each scene is either a dazzling performance or a seminal moment that leads to a dazzling performance. Its narrow focus becomes broad when it has to, like at a beautifully choreographed concert in Boston the day after Martin Luther King Jr. has died, and Brown has to settle down a riotous crowd. Later, already after numerous hair styles, Brown sports an Afro and records “I’m black and I’m proud” in a studio with little kids by his side. But most of the racial elements of his era become marginal, sometimes superficial elements, nods to show us the outside world affecting Brown besides the more witnessed opposite.
Taylor also directed The Help and it seems he’s made a 180 in his subject matter. The Help was just as much about white women helping black maids as it was about the social indignities of racist America. Here, Brown goes out of his way to explain he doesn’t need anyone, even when that isn’t largely the case. It stems from his abandoned past and feeds into his early time in jail for stealing a man’s suit. Music was always inside him, but prison brought it out of him. He listens to Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) sing gospel and then adds a few harmonies. Soon enough, he’s living with Bobby’s family, adding extra soul to hymns in church, and starting a band, “The Gospel Starlights.”
By the time Brown drops this musical genre for his signature funk, the movie takes off along with his ego. “No one else helped me,” he yells anytime he can, anytime his band complains or threatens to walk away, which they eventually do. The words start as motivation, turn into his own brand, and eventually display his delusion. That first occurs when he takes his “Famous Flames,” as they are renamed, and puts “James Brown and the” before it at behest of his agent Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd). The band leaves, but Bobby stays. His loyalty is bound to the success and stardom he sees in Brown, which means tempering any personal endeavors.
Boseman makes you want to stay with him. I’m not sure if he’s the only young black actor that studios feel can embody historical figures right now, but so far it’s not a bad bet. He couldn’t have played two opposite men. As Jackie Robinson in 42, his role was to keep quiet: hit the ball, run the bases, keep your head down. Here he can’t help but scream and smile. With Robinson, the attention was on the game of baseball. With Brown, it’s all on the performance. The beads of sweat cover his face minutes into a song. He spins and does splits. When he locks eyes with a woman (Jill Scott), who eventually becomes his second wife, at a concert, he’s running on adrenaline and an arrogance that he backs up with a Frank Underwood swagger. He’ll look into the camera, flash a knowing smile, and describe other people’s negligence to his vision. He’s the main character in House of Brown.
Most of that confidence comes from his musical acumen. It’s shown at an early age, in one of the few racially charged scenes, in which young black boys are blindfolded in a boxing ring for the white folks’ entertainment, gambling in the backyard of an estate. Brown emerges from the ring watching some black musicians play some upbeat jazz. The music changes. He spins the creole flavor into percussive hits that blend into his fundamental funk. Later he’ll tell his band to accent the first and third beats, turning his demanding practice schedules into laboratories of offbeats. Brown upended musical regimes by composing to a feeling, rather than a strict time signature. A few bars into a song and he has you hooked on his innovation.
Get on Up, penned by Edge of Tomorrow writers Jez and John Henry Butterworth, is too long and still caters to the tropes of musical biopics—drugs, abuse, marital issues— turning peripheral characters into caricatures. But much of Brown’s volatility is cartoonish, too: the vocal screeches and flare with the polarizing personality. It drove those closest to him away as much as it magnetized them. By the time Brown is fleeing police in his pick up truck, with wrinkles and gray hair, his cemented gas pedal mimics the man pushing it down. There were no “brakes” in his life. The accelerator was always pressed.