Not many musicians can say they were chiefly responsible for creating a genre of music, influencing artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Prince, as well as being one of early hip-hop’s most sampled acts, but that’s what James Brown did. Having had no formal music training, Brown was one of those rare songwriters who experimented with styles, even the rules of what was considered music, and came up with US Billboard Chart denting hit after hit (Brown’s emphasis on the bass and rhythm sections, that would eventually become known as funk, yet the same man also wrote one of the world’s most popular love songs, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World). The most memorable, game changing geniuses are usually flawed, complex, and contradictory; several words that only begin to describe James Brown. With Get On Up, The Help’s Tate Taylor bravely tries to sum up Brown’s life in just over two hours. The result is a decent, if patchy, biopic of The Godfather of Soul.
Alarm bells rang in my head when a 12A certificate flashed up on the cinema screen. You wouldn’t produce a film based on Keith Richards or Axl Rose’s life and give it a 12A rating; the same goes for James Brown. This is one of Get On Up’s biggest problems; Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script isn’t concerned with showing James Brown the womaniser, drug addict, or his erratic behaviour in later years, this is James Brown: the million-selling, founding father of funk. All of this is hinted at in Get On Up (an awkward and funny scene where Brown’s current and ex-wife see Brown off at the airport; a close up of Brown using PCP; the comical opening scene where Brown, out of his mind on drugs, waltzes in on a self-improvement seminar, shotgun aloft, demanding to know who used his private bathroom), but that’s just it; Brown’s personal life is hinted at, nothing more. We learn very little about James Brown other than he was brilliantly talented, a borderline sociopath, surrounded by yes men.
Instead of recounting Brown’s life from beginning to end, the Butterworth’s script zigzags frenetically throughout his life, juxtaposing scenes that are decades apart. You also have Brown (played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman) repeatedly break the fourth wall, glancing at the viewer, occasionally walking out of his own scene to talk to the camera and explain what’s going on inside his head. This is both strength and a massive flaw for the film. There are clever moments when Boseman glances at the camera, silently telling the audience, “I know how cool I am,” or, when he argues with the management at the record company he’s signed to, he’s saying, “This man is top of the class at stupid school.” In one stand out scene, where Brown’s manager, Ben Bart (played with relish by Dan Aykroyd) rants at Brown about how you can’t go changing the rules of the music industry, Brown walks away, leaving Bart lecturing to no one, and argues his point directly to camera, a glint in his eye as he sits back down. Early on in the film, you wonder why we’re not shown Brown’s reunion with his mother, years after she walked out when he was a child, leaving him with his abusive father. Taylor smartly places this scene after his best friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) walks away from him, having finally had enough of Brown’s arrogance and temper. Despite the money and the adoration from his fans, Brown was ultimately alone; by pushing away Bobby Byrd, he lost the one person who didn’t see him as a meal ticket (we soon realise that Brown’s mother hasn’t come to build bridges, she wants a hand out).
The problem with this scatter-shot approach is that at no point do we go into any detail about Brown’s life. It feels more like damage control than a warts-and-all biopic, Taylor swerving away from Brown’s personal troubles and instead trying to recreate his energy and charisma. For most of Get On Up, you get a rose-tinted trip down memory lane instead of a dig beneath the surface study of James Joseph Brown.
On the plus side, Chadwick Boseman’s performance is astonishing. While he’s taller, and doesn’t have quite the same build as Brown, Boseman copies the tics and expressions perfectly, able to pull off the steps, spins and splits as if he was created in a lab using Brown’s DNA. Instead of miming to the songs, it’s Boseman’s voice you hear, and while it isn’t quite Brown, Boseman is as close as anyone is going to get. When he sings, Boseman captures the screams and moans of ecstasy, longing, and regret that made Brown’s voice instantly recognisable.
Having got the rights to Brown’s music, Taylor ticks off virtually every song from his repertoire. Not only will the music have you moving around in your seat, you’re also reminded what a pioneering songwriter Brown was, how easily he could come up with an impossible not to dance to riff, such as the tight and stripped down Cold Sweat. A handful of famous songs are missing – The Boss and Hot Pants don’t make it in – but you will struggle to find a better soundtrack this year, or for a good many years.
Would James Brown have wanted a formulaic, by the numbers biopic about him? Probably not, but the approach that the Butterworth’s script takes means that fans won’t find out anything they don’t already know. Get On Up is a mile away from the step back and let the viewer judge biopics of Ray or 24 Hour Party People; it’s lightweight, but entertaining enough. If you want to appreciate the genius of James Brown, the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Live at the Apollo, one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Not only does the set skilfully swap from raging funk to slow, tender ballads, it’s a lesson in how a lead singer can get a crowd worked up and have them at his command.
3 out of 5