“James Brown was born dead,” says Chadwick Boseman (as Brown) to a pilot as their plane is bombarded with gunfire over Vietnam, Brown’s entire band sitting white-knuckled behind him. “If God didn’t call me back yet, he sure as hell ain’t gonna do it now.”
Death and life is the running theme throughout Get On Up, Brown’s big-screen biopic, and not just because “the Godfather of Soul” died on Christmas Day 2006. Like most biopics, Get On Up reveals Brown’s life in dramatic fashion, portraying him first as a young child called “Junior” within the confines of a toxic family (his mother left before his father took off for the Army and deposited him into a brothel), then as one of the most enigmatic showmen — and controlling bosses — in music history. In many ways, when Brown became, well, James Brown, he died and was reborn a superstar.
The film’s layout is a bit disjointed, jerking back and forth between “present” scenes, ranging from the 1950s to the 1980s, and Brown’s childhood. The lack of chronology means some emotional depth is sacrificed, and we don’t ever fully grasp exactly why Brown is the demanding perfectionist genius he is. Sure, there are revealing bits about revivalist ministers with moves eerily similar to his, flashbacks to Brown’s troubles with the law, and cutaways to recording studios, but this is all cookie-cutter fodder for any musical biopic. Even the very first scene of the movie sees Brown strutting down a hallway, bound for the stage, voices from his past echoing in his head. (Seems very reminiscent of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, doesn’t it?)
It’s not until the last half hour or so that we finally learn what really goes on inside James Brown, and start to emotionally invest in the character. Picking up on an earlier vignette in which Brown’s estranged mother (Viola Davis) tracks him down backstage after his 1962 performance at the Apollo Theatre, it’s revealed that, years after her departure, young “Junior” once spotted his mom on the arm of a serviceman and, as most children would, ran to her. Panic-stricken, she denied her son. Back at the Apollo, Brown hands his mother $100 before banishing her and breaking down. Then, when longtime partner and Famous Flame Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) enters the room, he instructs Byrd to make sure that she’s taken care of, “whatever she needs.”
From there, the film finally begins to unravel in the best way. A deeper, more emotional and vulnerable side of Brown is exposed, and we learn the difference between his exterior confidence and his inner insecurities. Throughout the film, he refers to himself in the third person, as he often did in reality, as if convincing himself that he really was “Mr. Dynamite,” and not an abandoned little boy dubbed “Junior” by uncaring parents. In a particularly jarring scene, when a squad of cops chases Brown in his beat-up truck through the backwoods, it’s not the circa-1988 Brown that finally steps out of the vehicle, but his nine-year-old self.
Until that point, the elder and younger Browns are somewhat in sync in their innate cockiness. Both break the fourth wall, shooting the audience smug smiles and knowing glances. (The only time Brown has trouble making eye contact with us is after suddenly hurtling his second wife across the room.) But the moment with the truck is the real turning point when we finally see the vulnerability inside both Brown and his inner child, and begin to feel empathy for them and their struggle.
Unfortunately, the movie ends about 10 minutes later.
Its lack of emotional depth is not for lack of trying on Boseman’s part. He makes a stellar James Brown, with both the swagger and smoky voice to pull off the role. It’s also interesting that the filmmakers chose to cast a 32-year-old man to portray the singer at every age; usually, it’s an older actor that has to somehow regress to convince audiences he’s 21. His spot-on performance is capped by his impressive recreation of Brown onstage, right down to his signature split, even though in rare moments, he aims for Brown but hits closer to Bruno Mars.
Likewise, the supporting cast does its best with the material, and sometimes inspires moments of greatness and hilarity, particularly Dan Akroyd as Brown’s manager, Ben Bart. Akroyd adds some much-needed levity to the film, often as the voice of reason and re-assurance. But again, the relationship between Bart and Brown is never fully flushed out, and thus, it’s mystifying when, after Bart’s death, Brown is devastated. Why, exactly? Oh, right, because literally one scene before, Bart gave him a pep talk aboard Brown’s private jet. Good thing the filmmakers sandwiched that touching moment in really quick! Even Brown’s friendship with Bobby Byrd seems hollow and meaningless, even confusing at times, and paints Byrd as more of a glorified go-fer than confidante and performer in his own right.
Moments of history, musical and otherwise, are sprinkled throughout, including Brown’s 1964 appearance on The T.A.M.I. Show (look closely as Brown stops outside a dressing room to see the original “Beach Boys” inside rehearsing, Pendleton shirts and all), a career-changing encounter with Little Richard, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course a gratuitous shot of “the Rolling Stones” nodding approvingly at Brown’s T.A.M.I. performance is included. After all, Mick Jagger is one of the film’s producers. Meanwhile, an actor is billed as “Sam Cooke” although we’re never formally introduced to the legendary soul singer. Actually, for the life of me, I can’t figure out where he showed up in the film, especially since I was on the look-out for any “cameos” from him.
Overall, Get On Up is fully forgettable. If that sounds harsh, compare it to Ray or Walk the Line, both of which make this film look like community theatre. It’s not the type of movie that leaves the audience singing along as it leaves because the music is simply not the star here. In some ways, it’s refreshing, as some biopics feel like two-hour-long music video compilations, but the execution of the plot is just unsalvageable, and it’s merciful that the music wasn’t dragged down with the ship.
Yet, for its lack of trying, it’s almost worth it for those last 30 minutes. If only the film were reversed. Then, we might really have something to “feel good” about.