Film Score: Thomas Newman Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Starring: Chadwick Bozeman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis and Dan Aykroyd
Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s biopic of James Brown, is something of a mixed bag. In terms of the events of Brown’s life, much of it is left vague and unconnected. The portrait of him that emerges from the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is of a lone individual, driven to succeed and never establishing anything like personal relationships that were meaningful in his life. The film actually mirrors that isolation in a way, as the viewer sees everything through Brown’s eyes--even when they disagree with him--and thus never has a sense of the world around him in which he is operating and to which he is reacting. On the plus side . . . the musical performances. Although in thinking about the music itself, there is precious little about him writing songs or being musically creative at all, the way something like Taylor Hackford’s biopic Ray was able to do. What the film does have going for it are powerhouse performances of the James Brown songbook, with Chad Bozeman doing an exceptional job at recreating his dance moves and mannerisms, and thoroughly embodying the character in the same way that Jamie Foxx did with Ray Charles.
The film begins by establishing the shifts in time, opening first on 1988, two decades after Brown’s biggest success. Brown enters a building owned by him and proceeds to humiliate a woman who had the temerity to use his bathroom, then sets about shooting up the place with a shotgun. Twenty years earlier, Brown goes to Viet Nam to entertain the troops and is almost shot down himself. From there, the story jumps back to his childhood in 1939, with mother Viola Davis making the best she can of a bad situation but ultimately making the decision to leave. After that, 1964 shows Bozeman as Brown just beginning to break through with The Famous Flames, agent Dan Aykroyd barely able to reel him in prior to a performance in which he’s been replaced as the closing act by the Rolling Stones. The disjointed narrative continues, with the only real thread running through it how James Brown always pushed forward in order to achieve what he believed was best for him. After his mother left he was raised in a whorehouse run by Octavia Spencer and attended the charismatic church nearby. By seventeen he was in prison, and when a gospel group came to sing, was able to get paroled by staying with the family of one of the boys--leader of what eventually became the Flames.
A chance meeting with Little Richard, who hadn’t yet broken out of Georgia, set Brown’s path to become a star. He told him who to send acetates to, and after a few months on the road his group was recording for King Records in Cincinnati, but by 1955, King didn’t want the Flames any more and they quit. Brown’s first big album he was forced to finance himself because King felt it was too big a risk to expect poor, black record buyers to purchase an album. With Aykroyd’s help he began to finance and promote his own shows, with an attendant increase in the money he was able to earn by eliminating promoters. Eventually he began his own recording studio and record label--People Records--and branched out into real estate, restaurants, and other investments. And while pandering to whites in the beginning of his career, this was only a stepping-stone to being able to make his own decisions as to how he wanted to present his music. It’s a rags-to-riches story of an incredibly flawed individual who had an equally incredible vision of what music could be and influenced countless musicians to this day.
Chad Bozeman does probably as well as anyone could in emulating James Brown on stage. The speaking voice seems a bit off, but that’s quibbling because his performance is excellent. If there’s a disappointment in the film as a whole, it’s the recent trend of breaking the fourth wall and having Bozeman--as well as the younger Brown, Jamarion and Jordon Scott--talk directly to the camera in character. It didn’t work very well for Jersey Boys, and it doesn’t work well here. Viola Davis, as good as she is, seems stereotyped in such similar roles that it makes me angry that Hollywood gives her so little to choose from. And the same goes for Octavia Spencer. Nelsan Ellis plays Bobby Byrd, the boy who got Brown out of prison when he was a teenager, and stayed with him through the end, the Carol Ann to Brown’s Joan Crawford. There are some definite problems with research: a heavyset Maceo Parker playing tenor is just flat wrong, as Parker was thin and played alto. But few casual fans would even notice--let alone even know who Parker was . . . or Pee Wee Ellis . . . or that Fred Wesley wasn’t even in the film. Still, Get On Up is an entertaining and informative look at The Godfather of Soul, an enigmatic figure who was a giant in the musical world.