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Film Review: Get on Up

Get on Up (2014; Directed by Tate Taylor)

“Don’t tell me where, when, or for how long I can be funky!” exclaims the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) to a flustered USO officer in late 1960s Vietnam, where Brown and a reduced remnant of his 22-piece band have just landed to perform for American troops rowdily anticipating the music superstar’s arrival. Their plane has come under enemy fire and is forced to land with one engine aflame. Despite Brown’s fondness for incendiary theatrics and grand entrances, he’s not thrilled about the danger he’s been placed in, excoriating the USO man further: “You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

This scene, coming very near the start of Get on Up, Tate Taylor’s semi-nonlinear narrative of James Brown’s life and career, taps entertainingly (but fleetingly) into the characteristics that made Brown so great: swaggering, electrifying, death-defying, self-aggrandizing, hilarious, and more than a little dangerous. Unfortunately, Get on Up touches that live wire only briefly, in moments rather than sustainedly. Brown endured and even thrived in his life on the edge for quite a long time, but Get on Up retreats to the safer, stabler environs of musical biopic convention more often than not, despite a blazing central performance from its star Boseman and gestures towards an artfully fragmented narrative and metaphoric structure.

Taylor’s cinematic narrative of Brown’s life (from a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) generally progresses chronologically along his common-enough rise from rags to riches, filthy anonimity to blazing fame in the burgeoning 1960s popular music world. Brown came from dirt-poor beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s South; there he is abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), beaten and then traded off on relatives by his Army-bound father Joseph (Lennie James), and inculcated into performance by the charismatic local preacher of the ecstatic African-American church and at the brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Possessed with a keen eye for maintaining a swag appearance from a young age, James Brown filches a fine pair of shoes from a lynched corpse (the film’s rare and thus conspicuous nod to the reality of mortal terror for black people in Brown’s younger days) and is later thrown in prison at 17 years of age for stealing a man’s suit.

There, James Brown’s easy charm and evident talent catches the eye of visiting gospel singing group leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whose family sponsors Brown for his parole. The two men become key allies through the gradual but boiling rise in fortune to come, first with Byrd’s group the Famous Flames and then under the later concert-hall-owning band fronted by Brown. Managed by wily industry vet Ben Bart (a nice supporting role for Dan Aykroyd, who had Brown himself as a guest performer in Blues Brothers), Brown’s odyssey winds through showstopping performances, creative and business trailblazing, identity crises, political tensions, personal struggle and change, and Brown’s legendary volatility and reputation for difficulty.

The latter fraught aspect of his identity receives a strong push, as Brown is shown clashing with his talented band (his lead saxophonist Maceo Parker, played by Craig Robinson, is in consistent conflict with him in the film), smacking his second wife Dee-Dee (Jill Scott) around for slight perceived offenses, and eventually breaking with longtime collaborator Byrd. Taylor prefaces his film with Brown’s dangerous unpredictability, opening with a scene depicting a dramatic and notorious episode of Brown’s well-known behavioural troubles (no, not that time he allegedly struck singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer, nor any of his drug arrests): a 1988 incident involving firearm discharge and armed threats at his Augusta, Georgia offices.

Get on Up is primarily focused on Brown and Byrd’s relationship, at times a partnership of equals but increasingly a hierarchical arrangement with the mercurial Brown as petty dictator. Their interactions and stubborn friendship, one supposes, are intended to reveal something essential in Brown’s character, something deeper and less guarded than the direct, fourth-wall-breaking, narrator-like statements about his career and life that Boseman’s Brown makes to the camera. I’m not sure it does tell us much about James Brown’s soul, ultimately.

It hardly helps that Brown’s idiosyncratic political views – he believed fiercely in black pride and self-determination, but supported and expressed admiration for U.S. politicians as diverse as Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy as well as Republican President Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his high regard for segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond – get distinctly short shrift. These are reduced to his aggressively neutral peacekeeping during a tense Boston concert after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inviting black school children to sing on the recording of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, trading the ski chalet sweater he donned for a white-audience-aimed Frankie Avalon Show performance earlier on for politically-conscious African-style garb in the process. Far more running time and effort is spent detailing how he and Bart broke the concert promoter cartels by using local independent radio to drum up interest in his shows, or his innovations of the rhythmic grooves that would define funk (and later hip-hop and modern R&B, genres that would sample his music extensively). The implication, and not an inaccurate one, is that for James Brown, laying down the funk was itself as profound a political act as he could envision or enact. Anything else was mere electoral theatre.

Questionable thematic balance aside, Boseman is spectacular as Brown, nailing the small details of his dancing, his impassioned vocals (though Boseman doesn’t do all of the singing), his volatile swagger, his gravelly seductive Southern bark of a speaking voice, his swelling pride and confidence. One might nitpick that Boseman doesn’t vanish utterly into the role as, say, Jamie Foxx did as Ray Charles in Ray, or that the lean six-foot-tall actor can’t truly approximate the physical impact of the compact, muscular five-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Dynamite, imparting a sense of flowing grace to a performer who was much more an explosive dynamo of demon energy.

As good as Boseman is and as entertaining and even insightful as Get on Up can be (young James’ dream-fantasy encounter with the sweaty, movement-heavy African-American church congregation is especially effective in establishing a recognizable model for his stage persona), the cocksure promise of that Vietnam scene is never quite delivered upon. For all of its gestures towards fragmented non-linearality and metaphorical illustrations of James Brown’s peculiar genius, appeal, and faults, Get on Up skews consistently and with mounting disappointment towards tired musical biopic cliches. Like Taylor’s 2011 Oscar fave The Help, Get on Up can tip into the uneasy feeling of a patronizing white-centric depiction of African-American culture when it isn’t inordinately careful. It won’t go down in history as the movie that killed the funk, but it’s hard to say that it doesn’t water it down more than one might have wished.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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