Don’t go to see the new James Brown bio-pic “Get On Up” expecting to learn the details of the odd and productive life of The Godfather of Soul. And don’t expect a greatest hits concert film. “Get On Up” runs about two and a half hours and doesn’t include performances of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You,” “In a Cold Sweat,” or “Living in America.”
Nevertheless, you do want to go to see the movie. It isn’t biography. It recalls the highlights of Brown’s remarkable career only in passing. It tries, but can’t manage to explain his arrestingly odd personality. But the movie, co-produced by Mick Jagger, does turn Chadwick Boseman loose to give us his fascinating take on the personality and habits of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
For a lot of Baby Boomers, James Brown was never an issue. He was a fact, a personality, an energetic and limber stage performer with a show full of hooks, including the great set-ending “cape routine.” Although, to be fair, he was never finished performing as far as we were concerned.
He was also an inventive musician who turned out riffs that, when repeated, could fill the two-and-a-half minute slots in Top 40 radio programming. “Sex Machine,” from which the title of the movie comes, is a peachy example. There isn’t any song there. There is a rhythm in that middle tempo that we call “funk.” And there are Brown’s short-line vocal pyrotechnics.
A scene in the film notes the unconventional simplicity of Brown’s big hits. A recording company chief in Cincinnati tells Brown’s agent (played by Dan Aykroyd) that there isn’t any there there. This is part of the lead-up to one actual and notable occurrence in Brown’s career.
He wanted to do a live album, recording a show at New York City’s Apollo night club. To do it, he had to pay for the recording himself. But the LP (as 33 1/3 r.p.m. records were called) was a big seller. At one time Brown’s faith in himself and the savings he made by not paying income tax got him several radio stations, a record production company, a record company, and several other investments.
But he frequently had trouble holding on to what he’d achieved. His romantic life, which included three marriages, was tumultuous. He went to jail several times—for theft, for tax evasion, and for discharging a shotgun inside one of his own businesses, if my memory serves. He could not maintain his popularity (though he did enjoy a couple of major resurgences). And after having provided the model for strict deportment control of show personnel that was later imitated by his disciple M.C. Hammer, Brown eventually spent some time smoking p.c.p. and cocaine.
His public persona, though, didn’t change much. He was a flat panel of projected confidence and intensity, always good-natured and full of the sorts of explanations one might expect from the product of a broken home, someone brought up in a rural bordello, and a guy devoted to the attitude of energetic evangelical worship.
The film cuts back and forth as it tells us a version of Brown’s life. In the last reel his performances are studded with brief footage from earlier live shows. We can tell how old he was by which haircut he wears. Generally speaking, though, the movie flashes back at length, with the era of the flashback noted in an on-screen text which also tells the place of the action or gives some reference to the section of Brown’s career.
All of which is a little confusing and distracting. But director Tate Taylor (who also made the surprise hit “The Help”) isn’t trying to maintain the illusion of reality here. Nor is he trying to do social commentary, to elevate the significance of his subject, or to explain what made stuff like “This is a Man’s World” and “Please, Please, Please” regular entries in a generation’s soundtrack.
No. Taylor is trying to offer explanations for Brown, usually Freudian ones, and that doesn’t go so well. John Lennon was deserted by his mother, too. Why didn’t he turn out like Brown?
What works in “Get On Up” is Chadwick Boseman. He finds the groove and rides it hard. And when he’s on the screen, its almost as if the great James Brown were once again playing the Teen Aged Music International show that was recorded and introduced everybody my age to that great cape routine. Imagine following that performance, as Jagger and the Stones had to.