Get On Up, released in theatres last week, is a James Brown biopic, but it’s best not to think of it that way. Less a character study than a perusal, the movie treats Brown like a fixed entity and holds him like a diamond to the light. It doesn’t ask why Brown was the way he was, because, in the film’s mythology, there is no why: James Brown never became James Brown. He always was, and still is.
The film has received truly mixed reviews: Some critics thought it was great, but others thought it cloying, even bloodless. The question of whether it’s good barely matters to me – Chadwick Boseman strutting in character through a parking lot would have been good enough – but I understand the ambivalence. Get On Up succeeds as an experience, but as a biopic, it fails the way most biopics do – by dehumanizing its subject, or, more specifically, failing to distinguish between its subject and the icon it’s really animating.
Biopics are distrusted for a reason. The genre is self-defeating – the demands of popular filmmaking are totally at odds with the demands of biography. People are not characters, lives are not stories, and “emotional truths” are not true. Steven Hyden made this point very well in a recent essay for Grantland.
As a result, biographical films tend to scribble over history and its inhabitants to varying degrees of harm. (For example, Jimi Hendrix’s ex-girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, has called John Ridley’s upcoming All Is By My Side “a gloomy and depressing dark tale that pictured Jimi as some sort of moronic loser,” and objected strongly to the suggestion that Hendrix abused her.) So they mostly disappoint: If the story is true, there’s a good chance your average fan has imagined it better than any filmmaker could.
Get On Up fabricates and sensationalizes certain details – notably Brown’s relationships with his mother and with Bobby Byrd, both of which serve as sporadic emotional through lines – and doesn’t deal in complexities. It mostly sidesteps Brown’s complicated but significant involvement with social activism. It presents Brown as invulnerable, glossing over the poverty and abuse he survived as a child. And while it acknowledges his sometimes terrible behaviour – beating women, stiffing his band members – it tends to present this as something to be expected. After Brown grabs a shotgun and barges into an insurance seminar held next door to his business office (he was angry that someone had used his toilet), he gets distracted by the music in his head, as if the outburst was caused by a short-circuiting of his genius.
Brown was an extraordinary human who transcended his circumstances through a nearly superhuman effort. But the protagonist of Get On Up feels other than human, a phenomenon just ripping into its destiny. The film shows Brown at his most spectacular, but underplays the pains it took him to get there, in life and on the road, even backstage (a heart-melting anecdote relayed in R.J. Smith’s 2012 biography The One finds him crying after an early show, having been bullied by his bandmates.) On stage, Brown, squat, soaked and grimacing, worked hard; Boseman, tall and lean, makes it look easy.
Get On Up is best in moments when you forget it’s a biopic and just take in the spectacle. Not of James Brown the guy, but of James Brown the secular saint who lives on in the public domain, as Hyden points out in his Grantland piece. This is what makes Boseman’s performance so exciting: He nails James Brown, but he isn’t.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Octavia Spencer, who plays Brown’s Aunt Honey, compared Boseman’s performance to Val Kilmer’s in The Doors, the 1991 biopic by Oliver Stone. Kilmer was lauded for channelling Jim Morrison, who Stone had characterized as the consummate dippy hippie. This irked the surviving Doors. “It was not about Jim Morrison,” Ray Manzarek told interviewer Gary James. “It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk. God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy?” Jimbo Morrison might have been fair game for biographical fantasy: Like gods or Playmobil pieces, rock ’n’ roll personae are ours to play with, invoke, or place in compromising positions. But we should avoid confusing them with their creators, who are not reducible to two-hour blockbusters. Stone went ahead and conflated the idol with the person.
Why bother trying to capture the true stories of unknowable people? It makes more sense, and it’s more fun, to treat stars as characters from folklore, to be pulled from the air, or as ideas to riff on. This is what Todd Haynes had in mind with 2007’s I’m Not There – not a Bob Dylan biopic, but something sui generis, inspired by Dylan and his propensity for reinvention, his deep unknowability. As Robert Sullivan put it in the New York Times Magazine, “Haynes didn’t want to make a movie about anything. He wanted to make a movie that is something.”
Conceptually, I’m Not There was brilliant, a perfect corrective to the treacly, unimaginative norm (it was also the first fictional film with permission to use Dylan’s music). I didn’t enjoy it as much in execution, but then, I’m not a Dylan fan. I’d be grateful if a director like Haynes would take a similar approach to Elton John, whose forthcoming biopic, starring Tom Hardy, threatens to override the impressions I hold sacred. Some recommendations: a story from the viewpoint of Elton’s lover, inspired by Gary Clarke’s 1995 memoir Elton, My Elton; a feature-length drama based on the song Levon starring John Hurt as Alvin Tostig; a film that takes place entirely in the room shown on the cover of Elton’s 1974 Greatest Hits. And I’d like to see a Being John Malkovich with Donald Fagen.
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