Everything about Get On Up, a provocatively structured and unusually rich musical biopic, is a little better, a little less formula-bound, a little sharper than the average specimen in this genre.
I’m surprised it’s this good, given that director Tate Taylor is coming off The Help, a sweet fraud of a civil rights fable saved by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They play key supporting roles in Get On Up. What Taylor achieves in his James Brown story works as inventive showbiz mythology, without sucking up to its subject in a hagiographical way.
The results may go easy on the depiction of Mr. Dynamite’s drug use and the numerous allegations of domestic violence. But the script—the reason the movie works in the first place—puts the audience in the position of sorting through Brown’s harsh childhood circumstances and how they pushed the man into fashioning and then maintaining his own fearsome funk legend.
Most moviegoers will simply want to know if Chadwick Boseman, who recently played Jackie Robinson in the bland-ish biopic 42, has even a quarter of the fierce charisma and a tenth of the dance moves of the man he’s playing. Those figures (25 and 10 percent, respectively) set a low bar that Boseman hits, easily. It’s more a fact than a flaw, but because the film has a lot on its mind and plays around with chronology in intriguing ways, Boseman never dominates the proceedings the way good actors in more conventional (and duller) biopics are able to take over, such as Jamie Foxx in Ray.
And yet the actor, like the film, works in a stealthy way. Often Boseman is doing the splits and singing his guts out, re-creating scenes from the films The T.A.M.I. Show or Ski Party. (“Oh, hell no—I’m in a honky hoedown!” Brown mutters, hilariously, in the latter segment.) Boseman’s no James Brown impersonator, to be sure. But the offstage scenes allow him room to develop his own response to the Brown legend, before, during and after his peak. We stay interested in the swirl of events because there is a flawed, dynamic human being at the center of the storm.
The script comes from British dramatists and playwrights Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, who are also brothers. They’re writers of wit and efficient character establishment. An ordinary biopic treatment of Brown would likely begin in the late 1930s with scenes of the young Brown, his parents, a torrent of physical and verbal abuse, his mother’s abandonment. Lennie James plays his father; Davis his mother. (Her key scene, an uneasy reunion, comes decades later, backstage at the Apollo in Harlem.)
After the abuse would come scenes at the bordello owned by young Brown’s no-nonsense adoptive relative, played by Spencer. Then, Brown’s 1949 arrest for stealing a suit of clothes out of a parked car. (Earlier we see young Brown, who is played by the twin actors Jordan and Jamarion Scott, purloin a pair of brown-and-white wingtips off the dangling corpse of a lynching victim.) In jail Brown meets his lifelong friend and colleague Bobby Byrd, played by Nelsan Ellis.
And from there a conventional biopic would race, or plod, through the musical styles and fashion phases, from gospel to Louis Jordan-inspired stompers such as “Caldonia,” and then on up to the music we know best with the name “James Brown” on it: “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and so many more.
Get On Up hits all these high points. But the Butterworths fracture the order, fruitfully. They’re more interested in making musical and dramatic connections across time and space—something in the ’70s triggering a childhood memory, for example—than in laying them out predictably.
Director Taylor’s primary contribution to the script was to have Boseman addressing the camera here and there, letting us in on Brown’s thoughts. Nothing new in that strategy. But in the recent Four Seasons biopic Jersey Boys, the actors seemed lost and alone up there, talking to us for no particular reason. In Get On Up there’s a terrific moment when we’ve just seen Brown assault one of his wives, and when the camera noses in for a private conversation between Brown and the camera, he cannot look us in the eye. The shame is too much.
Taylor shot Get On Up in Mississippi, a state we don’t see on screen very often—it doubles for various parts of the South and North. The movie contains some dead ends, a few clichés, a bum note or two. The Apollo we see in the movie looks half the size of the real theater, and some performances (Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager/agent, for one) are a tad ripe.
Will Brown’s story be inspirational enough for a big audience? I hope so, but Get On Up is better than inspirational; like the fascinating 1992 stage biography of Jelly Roll Morton, Jelly’s Last Jam, it’s a project that cares less about the facts than it does about finding the truthful emotional extremes inside a difficult American life, suffused with music.
Get On Up (PG-13): ★★★★✩