At some point during college, my friend Matt started referring to me as “the hardest working (wo)man in show business.” I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started and I have zero idea of the context; on the surface that nickname isn’t all that relevant to me. I may have been a budding pop culture maven back then, but I certainly wasn’t associated with show business. Frankly, I didn’t work that hard in college either; while a few classes were challenging (International Economics in particular), I really didn’t have to put in that much effort for most of my classes. I wasn’t even a James Brown fan – I knew who he was, obviously, and knew his hits but I didn’t have any heightened interest in him or his music. My best guess is that Matt said this once because he thought it was funny, I laughed and it became a running joke. He’d occasionally mix it up and call me the “Godfather of Soul,” which really confused people. This is still going on over 15 years later; I am pretty sure the last time I saw him he made some sort of James Brown reference. It still cracks me up, so it hasn’t lost its charm.
Because of this moniker, I’ve always had something of an affection for James Brown, even if I didn’t know all that much about him. So when the biopic Get On Up was announced, I saw it as a learning opportunity. Though there is always an issue of how accurate biopics are and a question of whether they whitewashed some aspects of a person’s life, I figured that Get On Up would at least provide me a starting point for learning a little bit more about Brown and his significance. The James Brown that I was most familiar with was the older Brown, who had been imitated so many times that his authentic self felt a little bit like a parody. With his sequenced jump suits and his crazy hair, I honestly wasn’t too sure what to make of him when I was a kid. So I was hoping that Get On Up would be both an entertaining and educational experience.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t quite fulfill what I was looking for; though Chadwick Boseman did an excellent job in conjuring up the spirit of Brown in his performance, the story just doesn’t give him the material to work with for a truly transformative performance. The film’s unnecessary jumping around in time and more cursory look at the musical legend doesn’t provide much insight into the performer behind the dancing and theatrics. Get On Up is more of a list of things that happened to James Brown, without telling us much about James Brown. It fails to pull any layers back to give the viewer any idea of why he was so important or an in-depth look at who he was. The failure of the film to have a tighter or more insightful narrative wastes Boseman’s terrific performance, which is a real shame. Given better material, this could have been his Ray and possibly given him a shot at some nominations.
It’s something of a daunting task to play a legend, but luckily Boseman has some experience in this area. He was great in last year’s 42 and did an excellent job of bringing baseball icon Jackie Robinson to life. On the one hand, playing Jackie Robinson might have been a little easier since we don’t know as much about him as a man; part of what made him so special was Robinson’s reserved demeanor in the face of tremendous adversity. Robinson the persona doesn’t much exist; he didn’t have a trademark look that had to be captured. On the other hand, Jackie Robinson is beloved by generations of sports fans so there was intense pressure to do right by the man’s legend. The opposite is true for portraying James Brown – it’s much more about getting his persona right first and then telling the story second. While most people couldn’t pick Jackie Robinson out of a lineup, pretty much everyone recognized James Brown. Brown also has a more complex backstory and while he is culturally significant, he is a less heroic story. It’s a testament to Boseman that he was able to handle these two very diverse challenges so well. His depiction of Brown was authentic without becoming a caricature. He had down Brown’s tendency to mumble-speak, though that also meant that I didn’t always 100% understand what he was saying. Boseman also did an excellent job with the performances; he lip synced to Brown’s music, but he certainly was convincing. When he played the older version of Brown, it was especially believable; at one point, I had to remind myself that Brown had passed away and that it was Boseman up on the screen and not the actual James Brown. He was extremely convincing and could play the different moods of Brown seamlessly. The entire cast did a good job; I am only really familiar with Nelsan Ellis’ work on True Blood as Lafayette (one of the only high points of that trainwreck of a show), so it was interesting to see him do something very different in his depiction of Brown’s best friend Bobby Byrd.
Boseman’s dedication to bringing James Brown to life it not met by the same dedication from the screenwriters and directors. The narrative that comprises Get On Up is too undercooked and haphazardly presented to really tell an adequate story about Brown. The screenwriters choose to use non-linear storytelling and while that can be an interesting devise when deployed properly, it is not employed for optimal effectiveness. In fact, their use of jumping back and forth in time is downright confusing in some instances – one minute you are watching Brown in the middle of his success and then the next you are suddenly getting a glimpse at his childhood. This would work if there was a clearer connection between the two events, but the transition is often abrupt and seemingly unrelated. It remind me of a child telling a story, where the facts are jumbled and they just insert things as they remember them. “So James Brown was performing on this TV show and was worried that he was selling out and, oh yeah, he was abused and abandoned as a child.” It just didn’t work under the poor use of the technique undercuts the flow of the story and its cohesion.
A side effect of all the narrative bouncing around is that the story never really spends much time on the significance of any of the events or what they mean about Brown as a man and his legacy. With all the moments that they chose to illustrate, Brown learning music isn’t one of them. He can just suddenly sing – other than a short moment where he enjoys hearing his father sing, there’s no discussion of how his talent was cultivated or why he would think he was talented. No moments are really allowed to breathe or be cultivated for their significance. Get On Up subscribes to the tell not show school of storytelling; with a more focused story that has moments more developed, I might have a better idea of who Brown was. The film doesn’t even do an adequate job of explaining why Brown was such an important and iconic figure. They figure if they just tell the viewer that he is, that’s enough. It isn’t.
Because there isn’t more time spent on looking at who James Brown was, rather than just checking off a list of events from his life, Get On Up winds up being a fairly two dimensional look at the man despite all the effort put in by Boseman. Brown actually doesn’t come out of this story looking all that great – he’s a tyrant with his band and abusive to his wife/girlfriend (that relationship is never made clear) at seemingly the drop of a hat. It doesn’t necessarily skip over his negative qualities, but because there isn’t much development those are the things that are most memorable about the film. I assume that wasn’t the intent, but if they were trying to provide a well-rounded look at a complicated man, they failed at the job. They do gloss over his drug abuse – there is one drug fueled incident, but because of the time jump, it isn’t clear at first the role that drugs played and there is no further discussion of when he started using or how frequently. Even VH1’s Behind the Music always makes sure to annotate the drug use of the performers that they are chronicling. Since they don’t do a good job of monitoring his drug use, it is hard to tell how much of his behavior derives from being under the influence. It would explain some of his more irrational behavior.
Some other thoughts:
- Craig Robinson and The Roots’ Tariq Trotter have small parts as members of Brown’s band.
- Dan Aykroyd also stars as Brown’s manager. Octavia Spencer is completely underutilized as Brown’s Aunt Honey. Viola Davis is given slightly more to do as Brown’s estranged mother.
- The camera work in the film is a little odd – I don’t know if they didn’t have confidence in Boseman’s ability to sell the lip syncing, but they make odd cuts or focus on everything except for Brown. During one scene, they must have panned to every person in the audience and I found myself thinking “why are we looking at a bunch of smiling faces when we could be watching James Brown?’ Whether they were right to pan away from Boseman or they erroneously lacked confidence in that part of the film, it was distracting.
- The movie picks an odd jumping off point for the narrative – Brown shooting off a gun because people used the bathroom at one of his buildings. It’s tremendously confusing as to what is going on, which I guess they are doing to prepare you for the rest of the movie.
- At least they got the soundtrack right with a solid collection of Brown’s hits.
While I really enjoyed Boseman’s performance, Get On Up actually left me with more questions about James Brown than answers. I can’t really say that I have a better grasp on the man or why he was important to popular music. It was nice to be reminded of all of Brown’s great music, but if I want to know more about the man I’m going to have to look elsewhere. Get On Up was a disappointing glimpse at a music legend; it was more interested in listing events rather than digging deeper to examine what those events meant. A more focused and nuanced story would have greatly improved this film; instead, the poor focus and development undermined one of the more interesting performances of the year. Frankly, the man that I share a nickname with deserved better.