James Brown Biopic ‘Get On Up’ Struggles to Balance Hero Worship With Real Talk


Like many cultural boundary-pushers, James Brown demanded a lot of people. He was complicated, full of flaws and vices as bold as his talents. Get On Up, the new Brown biopic, does not shy away from his uglier side — the drug-crazed 1988 car chase, the philandering and domestic abuse, the dictatorial band leader, the exact moment when cocky turns to cruel — but the film does explain these shortcomings with the ultimate cop-out: The Hardest Working Man In Show Business didn’t know how to need other people.

Abandoned by his parents and raised in a whorehouse in Augusta, Georgia by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), Brown (played here by Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42) experienced formative years so desperate, it’s a wonder he turned out any way at all. From Ray to Walk the Line, the underdog tale is perhaps the most common thread in musician biopics. It justifies the bad behavior and facilitates the hero worship needed to sustain a two-and-a-half-hour movie about someone who, despite his innumerable cultural contributions, did questionable things. All movie long, people keep telling James Brown how special he is, as if they need to convince themselves of it too. The audience wouldn’t be here if he weren’t.

A biopic with neither conflict nor resolution — essentially a list of accomplishments — is no fun, but Get On Up screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth perhaps fight a little too hard to temper the good with the bad in Brown. You find yourself feeling for the singer when his longtime bandmate and best friend, Bobby Byrd (played by True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis in a career-changing performance), walks out following an ugly scene in which Brown laughs at Byrd’s desire for a career of his own. Get On Up is manipulative in that way, which is a shame because the high points are really something. In particular, the film gets something right that is so often gotten wrong in these types of movies: the musical performances. Though Boseman didn’t sing the hits like Joaquín Phoenix did when he portrayed Johnny Cash, Brown’s on-stage presence amounted to so much more than just his voice, and Boseman commits fully to the demanding choreography, collapsing and contorting his full-suited body into split after split. (Brown’s defining off-stage tics are just as accurate here: his rasp-bark speaking voice, hunched shoulders, and jaunty strut.)

There is one problem with the performance scenes, however: the filmmakers pat themselves on the back for their historical accuracy by splicing Boseman’s on-stage scenes with footage from their source material. It’s as if they’re saying, “Look how hard we’re working to nail the art direction, costumes and choreography.” But Get On Up doesn’t need any external back-patting in that arena — they do nail it. This feels like Brown, a performer who entranced in magnetic ways. That counts for a lot, but the storytelling methods can be hard to follow at times.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Director Tate Taylor (The Help) plays with a nonlinear approach to telling Brown’s well-known story, which seems safe enough. Those who approach the film as an introduction to Brown may feel disoriented, particularly at first when Get On Up careens recklessly, like Brown himself doing the Mashed Potato. But it’s a welcome change of pace for those more familiar with Brown’s career.

The film traces his long career, which began when he joined Byrd’s band, the Gospel Starlights. The usual sequence of “rise to fame” scenes follows, as decades of hustle are relegated to crucial moments with little exposition: Federal Records demanding Brown demote his band, the Famous Flames, to little more than back-up singers; the death of his son Teddy; his movement from marriage to marriage, some of them never mentioned. There are entire gaps of his life unaddressed, like his late-’80s prison sentence, to make space towards the end of Get On Up for a moving scene between Brown and his estranged mother (Viola Davis, whose restrained desperation is one of the film’s best performances). “I left because I loved you,” she tells him, though the damage was done a long time ago. “James Brown don’t need no one,” he says, telling himself as much as her before breaking down in tears. Finally, some vulnerability to this extreme character.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As a portrait of the changing music industry (and popular culture at large), Get On Up sheds light on race relations in a way few biopics of the era have or likely will. This is confirmed by how much screen time Brown’s longtime manager Ben Bart (played by Dan Aykroyd) gets in the film, oftentimes during conversations in which the race records marketplace or payola are helpfully explained. Brown calms the black community in Boston following MLK’s assassination, delivering lines like, “Oh hell no, we in a honky hoedown” while wearing a bad Christmas sweater and essentially playing Frankie Avalon’s puppet. His childhood, meanwhile, included blind boxing matches among other blacks for the entertainment of rich white people. The film has its definite moments of racial real talk.

Get On Up represents the new high-level standard of biopics, but it’s not without its flaws. You feel for its creators: how do you fit a 50-year career into a couple of hours, and do you make it accessible to those unfamiliar with Brown beyond “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”? The forces behind Get On Up, which include Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger in executive producer roles, don’t skimp on what made James Brown the Godfather of Soul: performance after performance of see-it-to-believe-it devotion to the stage, the kind that turned entertainment into art.