By Wade Sheeler
There’s a moment midway through Get On Up that defines the movie and sums up its skillful storytelling. Several black boys have been blindfolded, one hand tied behind their backs, painted numbers across their bare chests and thrown at each other in a boxing ring as repulsive sport for southern white folks. As the boys mindlessly pound at each other, a stoic combo of black musicians plays New Orleans jazz. Our protagonist is hit hard and slams to the mat. As his eyes groggily open, he is facing the jazz band, and through his fog, focuses on the music they’re playing. As the music becomes deconstructed, and the band is reduced down to the piano player, the 4/4 time of traditional jazz remains, but the down beat becomes the main beat, and the brass effortlessly transitions into a 4/4 funk groove. In that moment, James Brown has breathed in tradition, and exhaled funk. Also in that moment, filmmaker Tate Taylor has distinguished his film from most other clichéd musical biopics by crystallizing the essence of its character and translated his genius into a visceral birth the audience can relate to.
The genius of James Brown was for most “non-musicians,” a nebulous thing that could only be described as the artist’s energy, moves, and groovy showmanship. All could agree that he “changed” music, but not every layman could put his or her finger on how exactly he did that. Music theorists could define it in abstract verbiage, but basically, if you couldn’t hear it, you couldn’t feel it or understand it. Director Tate Taylor and writers John-Henry & Jez Butterworth and Steven Baigelman have cracked that code and delivered on the promise. Whatever you thought of James Brown the person, you couldn’t argue his ability to get people to move. But instead of telling a traditional Hollywood tale, the filmmakers have focused on his gift in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy. He was always about the music, and the music is what Get On Up is all about.
Get On Up does, many times, fall into the biopic trap of condensing and fusing disparate moments from the artist’s life into single serving, dramatically simple bites to digest, and several times gives set-up (an unloving mother who abandons her child) and closure (a neat and tidy confrontation with mother and child at a historic and career defining performance) a trope heavily mined since movies began. But its non-linear style of storytelling acutely combines thematic parallels and arranges moments the same way our stream of consciousness works that helps raise the material above the clichés. Similarly, the device of breaking the fourth wall and having Brown deliver his thoughts to camera, may also seem done to death. But upon deeper reflection, it plays into the film’s theme: that life is non-linear, and only in a complete after-death retrospective, can the narrator look to the viewer, the only one sharing the ride with him, to commiserate and say, “You know the success of this moment, as I do now, and together we have that 20/20 hindsight.”
Of course, the life of James Brown is a dramatically abundant story to tell, so much that even when focusing on his life’s most salacious, headline-making moments, there’s still a wealth of material that time does not allow inclusion. Still, the man who storms into a strip mall with a shotgun in his sweatsuit, demanding to know who used his business-adjacent bathroom is a great place to start, and the child that steps out of the pickup used in a high speed chase, a child who faces the camera to confess “I paid the cost for bein’ the boss,” is a deserved place to end.
Brown The Man was a haunted artist who carried his sins on his shoulders, as well as those perpetrated against him, so that we may not agree at all with many of his actions, we can at least clearly understand his motivations. The film may still go a little soft on him, and hide his greater offenses off camera or completely off the page entirely, but we still come away with an antihero who did more for his race and music than any of his contemporaries. Everything you hope is there; his career defining live recorded performance at the Apollo, his treatment of his band (from fines to constant ridicule), his relationship with sideman Bobby Byrd, his partner through the worst and best of times, his historic and controversial live telecast performance in Boston just after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and even his brutality towards at least one of his wives, and the drug abuse.
The two standouts that make Get On Up a film you must see is the galvanizing performance by Chadwick Boseman, utterly transfixing as the “hardest working man in show business,” with moves and attitude that must exist deep within the actor and assure him an Oscar nom, and the music, which infuses the story not just with authenticity, but with an electricity that insures if you don’t move to the beat, you are a corpse.
It doesn’t hurt the cause that the film is co-produced by Mick Jagger, the first to admit he outright stole his moves from the “Godfather of Soul,” and is humble enough to illustrate the moment that Brown and his Famous Flames bested he and the other Rolling Stones when they had to follow him on The T.A.M.I. Show.
The music, however, is the movie. And as non-linear as the story is told, the music is presented in the same circular fashion as funk itself – continuous, repetitive, connective. Get thee to Get On Up, seat yourself in the theater’s back row for optimal dancing, and as Brown would say, “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved!”