You’ve got a rags-to-riches storyline, a career that coincides with the civil rights movement in the USA, decades of chart-topping hits, and plenty of personal and legal trouble behind the scenes: a James Brown biopic should have it made.
Director Tate Taylor’s Get on Up, however – a glossy take on the singer’s life and times that condenses his entire life into 140 minutes of razzle-dazzle flash – is content to offer up the surface pleasures while never digging too deep into its enigmatic central figure. On that level of pure entertainment value, much of this film is a blast; it’s also significantly disappointing that it doesn’t provide much else.
But it does have one thing really going for it: Chadwick Boseman in the central role. Boseman doesn’t look anything like Brown – and the extensive hair, makeup, and costume work, while pretty accurate, doesn’t really convince us otherwise – but the actor is so committed to the role, so enigmatic, that you can’t take your eyes off of him.
Last year, Boseman starred as Jackie Robinson in the underrated 42 – a less-conventional biopic that focused on a few key years in the ballplayer’s life rather than try to tell an entire life story. 42 was a stark, unflinching look at 1940s racism and the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, a man who sacrificed himself for a greater good and paved the way for countless others.
James Brown was also, briefly, a semi-professional ballplayer in the early 1950s (he was also a boxer before turning his attention to music). That’s one of many facts left out of Get on Up, and while we don’t expect every aspect of Brown’s life to be covered in detail, here are some other things that are left out or glossed over: his personal life (Brown fathered at least nine children, but only one of them is mentioned here), later legal troubles (domestic abuse is only briefly hinted at, and while the notorious high-speed chase is recreated, the aftermath – a three-year prison sentence – is curiously ignored), and perhaps most surprisingly, Brown’s role in the civil rights movement (while Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud appears on the soundtrack, it’s significance as a civil rights anthem is never discussed.
Director Tate Taylor previously made The Help, a well-intentioned but glossy overview of race relations in the Deep South during the civil rights era. He has some similar material to work with here – Brown’s rise to fame occured when black musicians were breaking through to mainstream white audiences, and he was a key civil rights era figure – but doesn’t delve too far down that road (the film does, however, recreate “The Night James Brown Saved Boston”, when Brown performed the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Still, one of the film’s most memorable sequences is a dream-like flashback during which a young Brown and other black youths are used as entertainment a ritzy white party: the kids are blindfolded, have one arm tied behind their backs and a boxing glove in the other, and face off against each other in the ring.
Rather than overtly get into race issues, however, this sequence attempts to get into Brown’s psyche: and I read it (rightly or wrongly) as Brown’s willingness to overtake his black brethren to please a white audience (Brown only gets the urge to win after seeing an African-American band performing at the function). That might be a stretch, but Brown was criticized for not being vocal enough as a civil rights leader, and his later support for Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was also called into question.
Of course, there’s so much more going on in Get on Up: Brown’s humble beginnings in a South Carolina shack (Viola Davis plays his mother, and Lennie James is his father; Octavia Spencer is Aunt Honey, the Madame who takes him in after his parents abandon him), his prison sentence for theft, a chance meeting with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and the Famous Flames, Little Richard, and then onto his music career (Dan Aykroyd plays manager Ben Bart).
A James Brown biopic was long overdue, and Get on Up fulfills the basic requirements: anyone unfamiliar with the singer gets the basic story (if presented in a by-the-numbers manner) and fans get a terrific soundtrack supported by an electric performance by Boseman in the lead. Still, for all the razzle-dazzle up on the screen, one wishes a little more flair had been put into the screenplay.