Humble beginnings? James Brown was born dead. You don’t get any more disadvantaged than that.
His stillborn arrival in a deeply backwoods cabin are told of in the 1986 autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul. Delivered lifeless, he was put aside while his mother and assembled aunts sobbed. But Aunt Minnie tried again to resuscitate the infant, eventually blowing life into him. Baby Brown bawled, as if to say “I feel good,” just like you know that he would if he could.
That’s the first passage of a book that ends with Brown explaining that there was James Brown the man and then there was James Brown the self-created myth. It’s not up to the funk-music-inventing, kinetically performing, drug-taking, abusive, complicated figure to separate the two. That’s a job for the rest of us and Tate Taylor, the director of an entertaining, magnetic and good but not great biopic Get On Up that thrives on a thrilling soundtrack, a doozy of a yarn and Chadwick Boseman’s dynamite-powered portrayal of Brown.
The film does not begin with Brown’s dead-on-arrival entry into the world; Taylor tells the rags-to-riches story in a thematic rather than strictly chronological fashion. Nonlinear as it is, the film shares a similarity with biopics on Johnny Cash (2005’s Walk the Line) and Ray Charles (2004’s Ray). Both of those pioneering icons were haunted from a young age by the deaths of their brothers. Brown’s early trauma was being disowned by his parents as a boy in rural Georgia in the 1930s.
But where Cash and Charles come off as tragic and sad figures in their films, the pleading Please Please Please singer and Sex Machine shouter is cast by Taylor as lonesome, unloving and mostly unlovable. Though the singer is portrayed as enjoying a successful relationship with his subservient Jewish manager (Ben Bart, played by Dan Aykroyd), the lifelong ethos of Soul Brother No. 1 was to “look out for yourself,” because no one else would.
Taylor – and perhaps one of the film’s producers, the Rolling Stones’s Mick Jagger – mostly sticks to Brown the man (and boy). But when they get into the myth, they go all the way with it. A key scene has a preteen Brown as a participant in a battle royal at a white country club, where lighthearted entertainment involved blindfolding brown-skinned boys, tying one hand behind their backs and having them flail away at each other until only one is left standing. Each of them has number painted on their chests for identification purposes.
Knocked onto the canvas, in a daze, young Brown reimagines the staid music being played by the band outside the ring as rhythmically charged and riotously upbeat. He then picks himself off the mat and, with one hand literally tied behind his back, wins the fight. Did I mention that Brown’s painted-on number was the number one? You should have guessed – we’re talking destiny.
Often Brown’s character addresses the camera and audience directly, breaking the fourth wall. (I’m not sure if it works or doesn’t, but I’m also pretty sure it doesn’t matter.) With the above blatantly symbolic scene, however, one half expects director Taylor to pop into frame and tap dance across the screen holding a cue card with “Metaphor” in giant letters.
No doubt, folks will hype the electrifying performance of Boseman – who played another African-American hero, baseball’s racial integrator Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 – as Oscar-worthy. He does have Brown’s rhythmic rasp down pat, and his dance moves are outstanding.
But if one is placing bets on Academy Awards night, the money should be on Robert L. Stevenson (for his career-making turn as the film’s wig consultant) and Nelsan Ellis (who gives an affecting, nuanced performance as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s long-suffering but loyal bandmate and quasi-brother). It should be noted that Ellis was up for the lead role, but settled for the sideman character when Boseman got the job. Basically the same thing happened in Brown’s life, when he took over the Famous Flames and became the (ruthless, unlikable) boss of the band. So, meta.
Where the film fails is in its fizzled, melodramatic ending. The problem is that Brown the man had no resolution – no third act. Early in the film, Brown is shown upstaging the headlining Rolling Stones in a 1964 concert broadcast, the T.A.M.I. Show. Jagger and the Stones found out the hard way that nobody follows James Brown – not even James Brown himself.