The average Hollywood biopic dramatizes struggle, inspiration, triumph, survival. What it rarely captures is sweat.
“Get on Up” has the sweat.
Well, of course it does: It’s the story of James Brown, hardest-working man in show business and one of the 20th-century’s legitimate creative geniuses. Unlike all those artists who strain to make it look easy, Brown delighted in making it look hard. Perspiration poured off his body as he whipped his backup band the JBs to new heights of R&B fury, muscles twitched as he threw off the cape and lunged back to the microphone for one more encore. James Brown did it to death, and he wanted you to feel every bit of his mastery.
“Get on Up” stars Chadwick Boseman, who was very good as baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” a pleasant, popular movie that was nevertheless something of a whitewash. It was directed by Tate Taylor, whose previous film, “The Help,” could be (and has been) similarly charged. Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, working from a story co-written with Steve Baigelman, wrote the last Tom Cruise movie. That was better than you might think, but still, none of this is cause for comfort.
Yet “Get 0n Up” is a triumph — a messy, qualified triumph that even at 138 minutes makes an incomplete case for Brown’s meaning to American life and culture, but a triumph nevertheless. The filmmakers seem to understand that they don’t have to sell this African-American story to mainstream audiences the way Jackie Robinson once had to win over a nation of white baseball fans. The saga of James Brown is that of a man committed to being his bad self in all his majesty, and if the white folks wanted to come along, let ’em. He allowed us to get up offa that thing. In 1965, that was incendiary.
The built-in problem is that there’s not much dramatic conflict here, so the screenwriters throw their deck of Story Structure 101 rules in the air and let the cards settle where they may. An impressionistic, a-chronological version of Brown’s life, “Get on Up” begins with the 1988 incident in which the aging, cocaine-addled singer held a business seminar hostage at gunpoint because one of the students had had the temerity to use his building’s toilet. The scene’s played for absurdist farce rather than suspense, and we know the movie and Boseman are on the good foot because when Brown speaks, his accent is so down-home you can’t understand a blessed word he says.
From there we bounce back to the singer’s childhood in the South Carolina backcountry, where’s he’s abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis, managing to simultaneously condemn and ennoble the woman she’s playing) and dumped by his father (Lennie James) at a whorehouse run by his aunt (Octavia Spencer). The point is that the kid had no mentor and no reason to expect one. It was all James.
One moment we’re backstage at the legendary T.A.M.I. show in 1964, Brown and the Famous Flames showing those British lads the Rolling Stones how it’s done. Then — zip — we’re in a Georgia juvenile detention center circa 1950, where Brown, serving time for stealing a suit, meets gospel singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and forms a partnership. Then — bang — it’s a few years later and the ambitious young James is getting career advice from a barnstorming Little Richard (Brandon Smith), already outrageous beyond his years. Then — boom — we’re in Boston, 1968, and Brown takes the stage at the Garden the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and through sheer force of will bends the audience away from rioting.
That’s an incredible moment, and it offers the key to why “Get on Up” feels so unusual: The whites are wholly incidental. They’re the cops yanking enthusiastic concertgoers off the stage and starting to rough them up before Brown stops the music and addresses his fans, saying, in effect, you can do better than this. You can show respect to Dr. King, to me, to yourselves. He doesn’t even look at the police or the “nice new mayor” (Jason Davis as Kevin White) in the wings. This is between him and his people.
Similarly, there’s a white promoter — a chummy Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart — who ends up working for Brown after a delicious sequence in which he offers the singer a Cadillac (the standard sop to R&B talent) and is patiently schooled by James Brown, entrepreneur. “Get on Up” makes a point of emphasizing both halves of the phrase “show business” and demonstrating that Brown was a pioneer in each. If that cut him off from other people — the band members who had to call him “Mr. Brown” and pay fines for unshined shoes, the wives he loved and occasionally smacked around — the price, the movie asserts, was worth it.
The problem with shuttling back and forth in time is that we occasionally lose our bearings, most crucially with the secondary characters. Some excellent actors are lost: Craig Robinson as bandleader Maceo Parker, singer Jill Scott as second wife DeeDee, Aunjanue Ellis as featured singer Vicki Anderson. When Brown’s grown son Teddy dies, it’s unclear what killed him (a car crash, actually) or who was playing him. Likewise, Brown’s late-life drug intake and serial spousal abuse are acknowledged but hardly explored; this is a man’s man’s man’s movie and not the better for it. Even the film’s primary dramatic through-line — the star’s relationship with his long-suffering second banana Bobby Byrd — seems unconvincingly pumped up, especially since the final scenes of “Get on Up” feature old-age makeup that’s simply tragic.
If there’s an organizing principle, it’s the music. That’s as it should be; that’s the story. In concert sequences and in the studio, we’re treated to galvanizing visualizations of the funk: “I Got the Feeling,” “Cold Sweat,” “Popcorn,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the unstoppable “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” all of them ridiculously propulsive grooves goosed by elastic bass lines, skittering horn charts, chicken-scratch guitar, and Brown’s raw, percussive vocals.
Boseman has the moves down but, thankfully, doesn’t do his own singing, lip-synching instead to Brown’s originals. Yet he inhabits the singer totally. It probably means something that the actor has (as yet) no celebrity persona outside his two most prominent roles, so it’s easy for him to pull on the cape of JB’s persona and have us believe it. The two men look nothing alike, yet Boseman convinces in the spring of the walk, the confident slur of the talk, and, above all, the sweat — the discipline, effort, and joy — he puts into every waking moment.
“Get on Up” features one tart scene (only one, sad to say) that explains the essence of Brown’s revolution. The singer sits backstage and reminds his rebellious musicians that each of them is playing a drum. The sax is a drum. The keyboard’s a drum. James Brown is a drum. Like a king demanding his due, he insists that what makes American music is not melody but rhythm — all sorts of rhythms, mashing up against each other and daring you not to dance. What “Get on Up” understands but can’t quite bring itself to say is that this music looks forward to the future, to our now-dominant hip-hop culture, and far, far back into the past. Pulling them together with all his might is one man with a processed hairdo and a big, nasty smile. James Brown knew the truth: that the music we brought here in slave ships had finally arrived to set us free.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.