Bio pictures are a strange kettle of fish. Rarely much more than delusional myth-making exercises concerning someone extraordinary who is deceased or reviving the fortunes of someone who is close to it. This seems to be especially so with musicians. Having reviewed Jersey Boys and been bored stiff at Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire, Ray, Sweet Dreams, Selena, Coal Miner’s Daughter, What’s Love Got to Do With it?, Bird and Cadillac Records, to name but a few, it’s not my favorite genre. The notion of “based on a true story” seems far more worthwhile when the fictionalization of a life story is done to bolster up a few well-known biographical incidents. Cases in point are movies like Basquiat, Amadeus, Immortal Beloved, My Left Foot, Savage Messiah, Topsy Turvy and, probably best of all, Raging Bull, which really gives a true sense of deeply etched, well thought through character that none of the former group ever touch upon convincingly.
How surprised I was then that the director of Get On Up turned out to be Tate Taylor, who I’ve found interesting since his debut, Pretty Ugly People (2009), promised so much. Yet The Help (2011) was utterly dreadful. A box-office smash, to be sure, but a syrupy hash of sentimental clichés verging so much on the edge of the hysterical that it ended up a parody of itself. How marvelous then that Taylor took a project about a larger-than-life entertainer, and saw it in a fresh, non-linear way, rewarding us with an enormously satisfying Get on Up.
Did I say that Jersey Boys was flat and problematic? Good music, in and of itself, is just not enough. There’s no sense of what makes the Four Seasons tick. Taylor is ambitious; he reaches for the stars and never falls into the same old pitfalls that kill so many biopics. Taylor is what I’ll call a context junkie and his James Brown is performed brilliantly by the live wire Chadwick Boseman. Brown, who called himself ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’, is seen in a very specific way. Brown – who certainly gave the greatest live show I ever saw (and did many times!) – was a complex man. His music worked on millions of fans in an altogether innovative, special way that was danceable, catchy, political, uniquely American, artistically relevant and, above all, black! Taylor takes the time to frame James’ bio as a cautionary tale of what happens to a performer who wants to be a businessman insistent upon controlling his own destiny.
Yet Taylor keeps Get on Up on a short leash. It never escapes into sentimental or preachy territory. There were many James Browns: a loyal friend to a chosen few, yet often a mean, desperate, narcissist; a passionate loving gentle husband, he could chemically transform into a verbal and physical abuser. Dedicated to his musical craft like a true zealot, he could, in turn, be abusive to his band members and wives; a shrewd, penny-parsing money manager, he wanted to be a great entrepreneur but somehow ended up bankrupt.
The screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth is busy as the story zigzags from a PCP-blitzed Brown holding a pistol on some insurance executives in 1990, shifts to the 1930s, where young James (twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) struggles against hunger in his parents’ sharecropper shack. Then it’s the crazy 1960s, as Brown’s USO plane almost gets destroyed over the jungles of Vietnam. Boom! Boom! Boom!
Brown’s importance is never trivialized. He mesmerizes and calms an angry crowd in Boston the night after MLK has been shot dead in Memphis. Nailing the 60s perfectly, Taylor’s allocation of so much of the budget to getting time and place dead right is awesome to behold.
Finally, there’s the casting. Standouts are True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis, who is uncannily good as Brown’s right-hand man Bobby Byrd, while Brandon Smith is fantastic as the naughty Little Richard. Boseman, however, shows he has talent to burn. Excellent as Jackie Robinson in 42, here he is downright triumphant, black and proud. The vocals may be Brown’s, but the dance moves seem to have been downright channeled by Boseman. See it!