Get On Up
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Dan Aykroyd, Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis
Directed by Tate Taylor
From Universal Pictures
Get On Up
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Like James Brown himself, Get On Up is a hot mess with a great soundtrack.
Not to speak ill of the dead — Brown died in 2006 — it’s just that the singer had some very public problems with drugs, alcohol and domestic violence. He was also a gifted showman, a riotous performer and a larger-than-life personality. Get On Up chronicles both sides of the Godfather of Soul’s life within a competing collection of scenes, time periods and themes cobbled together with little precision in Tate Taylor’s rudimentary bio-picture. Ray and Walk the Line this is not.
Holding the jumble together, though, is Chadwick Boseman as the irascible James Brown. We last saw Boseman in 42 playing Jackie Robinson, and here he again transcends the historical role to wear the many faces of James Brown, from his pampadour’d beginnings as a gospel-soul singer to his later performances with the jumpsuits and capes. Boseman’s Brown does something I wasn’t expecting, though I much appreciated: he breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience.
“James Brown touched everything, every record,” he says referencing himself in the third person during the opening scenes in a House of Cards-like breakaway from the action. “James Brown brings the super-heavy funk, you know it.” Boseman winks and cringes and stares back at us, channeling Brown in effective little snippets of the man’s persona. In one monologue spoken directly to us, he explains how he worked around payola and other radio tricks to get his music on the air and in concert halls.
The movie begins near the end, with Mr. Brown — everyone had to call him that — strolling into his office to find that someone has “hung a number two in muh toilet.” Needless to say, I didn’t expect this introduction. Brown walks out to his truck, grabs a shotgun and fires it into the ceiling accidentally. Sirens start screaming in the distance. Then the movie cuts to the golden years, when Brown had a private jet, fur coats and briefcases full of money.
But don’t settle in, because it jumps again, this time back to his childhood in rural Georgia, where his mother and father abandoned him first with each other, then with an aunt at a brothel. It’s the early 1940s, and we see a very young James working at the brothel hustling Army soldiers on leave into the red-lit hallways and the waiting girls. One morning he wanders through town and stops at a church, where he witnesses the congregation, and their rapturous preacher, dancing in an evangelical daze, as if possessed by God. The movie doesn’t say it bluntly, but it makes nudging suggestions: James Brown found success when he crossed sex and gospel.
After several time warps through Brown’s life, Get On Up starts feeling very gonzo and self-aware. The fact that it’s all in non-consecutive snippets adds to that general style and tone. Some viewers will see sloppy filmmaking — and there is evidence there to support that — but squint just a little and the structure looks like wild improvisation, the kind that made Brown so brilliant on a stage. I enjoyed the hectic jumping around, even if it makes the film disjointed and non-linear. It turns events into context-free episodes that reveal his true character, like the time Brown sings in the prison medical center, or clocks his wife in the face while wearing a Santa Claus suit, or when he berates and fines his band members for minor infractions, or when he hijacks a Little Richard show. In another mini episode, Brown is flown into Vietnam to entertain the troops. The plane takes enemy fire coming in, and an unfazed James is chatting with the tense pilots — “You can’t kill the funk.” Though they aren’t always linked, these scenes start to form the sum of Brown’s frenzied legacy.
Some of these sequences add up to larger themes, but many don’t. A Boston concert after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. is ready to explode into a riot, but Brown admonishes and then rallies his fans to preserve the peace. Later, Brown is in the studio recording children singing “Say it loud / I’m black and I’m proud.” Surely, race and the Civil Rights struggle will play a larger role in the context of Brown’s life, right? Wrong. Race is a dead end, even as Allison Janney (and others) turn up to say the N word, or as James and his first band, the Famous Flames, play to a “honky hoedown” of white faces on television.
Another dead end: Brown’s confusing personal life, which included drugs, alcohol, stints in jail, various women and lots of wacky appearances and mugshots. A great deal of time is spent with musical partner Bobby Byrd, who took more abuse than he was being paid to receive. Byrd is played by Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette from True Blood), who needs to be in more movies. Dan Aykroyd also turns up as Brown’s manager and promoter, while Octavia Spencer plays the madame at the brothel and Viola Davis plays his mother.
So let’s talk about the music — it’s amazing. All the hits are here as well as some deeper cuts, and to hear them loud on the big screen is just electrifying. The songs have momentum, too, including in that Little Richard sequence or when Brown counts it off and drops into that super-heavy funk. Boseman’s lip-syncing is frequently off, but he more than makes up for it in his fancy footwork, spins, twists, windmills and splits. It was exhausting just watching him.
Is that enough to get you into Get On Up? If you like James Brown’s music, then that’s more than enough.