In spite of its similarity to other recent musical biopics, Get On Up (2014, directed by Tate Taylor), a biography of James Brown, stands apart both for the intensity of its musical scenes and its cinematic invention. This is not a dry recitation of facts, nor is it any kind of redemptive narrative. This is a portrait of the artist as an egotistical asshole, one that skips around in time and breaks the fourth wall and generally throbs with a kind of staccato cinematic life. It's a film that lives and breathes as film, something that has eluded other projects of its type. As such, it's energizing, a quality augmented by an absolutely killer soundtrack. James Brown in life was a braggart and egotist who variously claimed to have invented funk and rap as new musical forms. Musicologists of late have come to think that Brown was entirely too modest. Brown was a musical titan, but, man, the Brown in this film decidedly has feet of clay.
This film skips around in time, often retreating to Brown's hardscrabble childhood as the son of parents who both abandon him. He was largely raised by his aunt in Augusta, Georgia, who ran a brothel and employed him as a hustler to guide soldiers to her establishment. Brown was also a boxer and a thief in his youth. As an adult, we first see Brown in two contexts: as a performer for the USO in Vietnam, and later in life committing the acts that sent him to prison for weapon and drug charges in the late 1980s. Brown is the creator of occasionally harrowing anti-drug music ("King Heroin" being perhaps the most famous); a scene late in the film finds Brown telling the audience to "do as I say, not as I do," as he gets stoned on a joint laced with angel dust. The film is clear-eyed about Brown's dealings with his employees, his turbulent relationship with Bobby Byrd, who discovered brown, his abusive relationships with women, and his disregard for rules wherever they contradict his own desires. He lands in prison a couple of times, once for stealing a suit when he was 17, another after leading a high speed car chase and dodging bullets (this latter is probably an exaggeration). Meanwhile, Brown revolutionizes music. A lot of people don't "get" it. One such is Syd Nathan, head of King Records, who absolutely doesn't understand Brown's music and refuses to fund Brown's desire to make a live album. Brown funds it himself and the result is the landmark, Live at the Apollo. Brown and his band wind up on Frankie Avalon's Ski Party, a gig so whitebread that it shocks Brown into a closer embrace of his own blackness. Brown and his band find themselves on the T.A.M.I. Show playing before some upstart British band called The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger is one of the producers of this film). All the while, Brown alienates his band, his family, and ultimately Byrd, who has stood by Brown through everything...
In its broad outlines, this film reminds me a bit of Citizen Kane. It's certainly got the same kind of bitterness. Its relationship between Brown and Byrd is a mirror of the relationship between Kane and Jed Leland. Like Kane, Brown gets everything he wants, but winds up isolated from the people in his wake. Unlike Kane, though, we get Brown's life from his own point of view. This film is most striking when it breaks the fourth wall. The scene where Brown gets up from the table with Ben Bart to explain to the audience why Bart is all wet is the most striking of these, but the repeated intrusion on the film's chronology by Brown as a child, also talking directly to the camera, acts almost as a talisman. The way this shatters its own narrative into mosaic tiles is a striking decision that places a lot of trust in the audience and a lot of trust in the filmmakers' own ability to make it cohere in the end. It's a gamble that mostly pays off.
These sorts of musical biopics are films that actors love to play because it gives them the opportunity to showcase their facility for mimicry. The center of this film is Chadwick Boseman, who has Brown's strut down pat and his voice more or less tuned to what Brown sounded like. The physical elements of performance are in place, but those are almost a given in this kind of film. What's not a given is the core of the character beyond the techniques of portraying him. The film drills into this with a vengeance with its depictions events from Browns life that can't help but scar him: the dissolution of his band, his increasing estrangement from Bobby Byrd, his upbringing in a brothel and as a novelty boxer for the amusement of white folk. His reunion with his mother, Susie, on the eve of his landmark performance at the Apollo, the night Brown saved Boston from the riots that burned most other cities when Dr. King was shot. These provide a window into a complicated, multifaceted man whose prickly exterior hides deep wounds. Boseman nails all of this down with deceptive ease. The standout scene along these lines is the reunion between Brown and his mother, played in the film by Viola Davis, which is as raw a scene as you could hope to see in a film like this. If this scene isn't Davis's Oscar clip this year, I would be surprised. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Dan Ackroyd's performance as Ben Bart, while good enough, only reminds the audience that Ackroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers. Octavia Spencer as Brown's aunt tends to recede into the background. The only actor to appear in as much of the film as Boseman is Nelsan Ellis as Byrd, and his character is essentially a long-suffering best friend as whipped submissive, until the end of the film, anyway, when he finally has had enough.
The shadow of race and the civil rights movement lies heavy on this film. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Brown as a boy steals the shoes off the feet of a man who has been lynched. That scene is electrifying; it puts Brown's life in the context of the racial discontent that defines American history. The Boston concert and Brown's USO trip to Vietnam further contextualize Brown in the zeitgeist of his times. Brown was thought of as one of the most important black men in the Unites States following the killings of King and Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy (Brown was set to endorse Kennedy when the man was shot, something this film omits). In a lot of ways, Brown represented an aspirational figure, proof that a black man wasn't destined to be crushed by America, given that Brown started at the lowest rung of the ladder and ascended very high indeed. But then, Brown was a genius, something upon which the film doesn't put too fine a point. That very genius complicates the fact that Brown was a violent, abusive man to those around him, whether the band he exploits or the women he batters. The film doesn't sidestep this aspect of the man--which is good--nor does it argue for some half-assed benefit of clergy for his transgressions. It does, however, significantly understate Brown's reputation for violence. The movie makes no mention of the rape allegations that dogged him, for instance, and the scenes of violence that famously landed the older Brown in jail are played like movie tropes: a high speed chase of dubious real-life provenance, his brandishing of a shotgun to a crowd of terrified people that's played for laughs, etc. This is all troubling.
The nature of Brown's genius--not the politics, not the brutal personality defects--are on screen from the first frame to the last. This is a musical, after all. The film wisely chooses to dub the real James Brown's singing voice over Boseman. Asking an actor to channel that is probably too much. But the film goes beyond the inevitable touching upon Brown's greatest hits into the theory behind what made his music great. There's a terrific scene where Brown is arguing with his band about concepts he's trying to convey that seem "unmusical" to his bandmates. To Brown, there's no such thing as a rhythm section. Every instrument is a drum of one kind or another. There's a scene where Brown as a child hits the mat curing a boxing match and he looks over at the jazz band playing the event only to hallucinate them playing the kind of music that he himself would invent as an adult. It's a clever way to deconstruct exactly what Brown did. It is easy to fall into the myth of James Brown as the sole font of funk and hip hop, but the film addresses this, too, when Brown has an encounter with Little Richard, that hints at the cultural ferment that gave rise to rock and roll, while another scene in the offices of King Records has a poster advertising a show by Wynonnie Harris, who was the first (now mostly forgotten) king of rock and roll. The film avoids Ray Charles, who in life was one of Brown's good friends, perhaps because Charles was as much of a genius as Brown and that might divert the film. Besides, Ray Charles has his own biopic.
The musical biopic fills a void in contemporary cinema, by the way. It's almost impossible to sell a musical qua musical these days unless you dress it up as something else. An animated adventure, for instance, or, as in this film, a biography. Anything to provide an excuse for musical numbers. The ones here are doozies. This is a film that drops the audience into the groove. As I walked to the parking lot after it was over, I wanted to go somewhere and dance.
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