Last year, producer Brian Grazer faced criticism surrounding his planned James Brown biopic, after news that original director Spike Lee was replaced by “The Help” helmer Tate Taylor. The then untitled movie had been decades in the making – Grazer had bought the rights and consulted with Brown himself well before the singer’s death in 2006. But with Brown’s passing, Grazer eventually lost the rights, and whatever Lee’s original vision had been (Wesley Snipes was his pick to star) gave way to what is now the highly anticipated “Get On Up”.
When asked in an interview how he felt about numerous complaints over a new (white) filmmaker stepping into Lee’s spot, Grazer said: “…I don’t see the world that way… I’ve made so many movies where I’ve supported black artists. Tate made ‘The Help’, and that had almost an entirely black population.”
The ongoing discussion about white filmmakers telling black stories aside, Tate Taylor did indeed direct the “The Help,” and in “Get On Up,” it shows. Which is to say, despite its highlights (chief among them, its star Chadwick Boseman), it is a slightly sanitized, shamelessly Oscar-baiting, overly eager to please movie. And, much like “The Help,” it addresses the racial politics surrounding Brown, but never gets quite comfortable enough to fully and honestly engage with them.
Because there is James Brown, and then there is the myth of James Brown.
Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth struggle in picking what story to tell. Brown’s life is not presented in chronological order, instead jumping from decade to decade in vignettes that attempt to reveal what made him the superstar he became.
We’re introduced to Brown as an older man, during his brief decline in the late 1980s. We shift over to a glossy technicolor reimagining of his landmark “Live At the Apollo” recording in ‘63. Next, dreamlike images of an impoverished childhood in the 1940s South, then a cut over to his first performance with The Famous Flames, over to his meeting with LBJ at the White House, and so on.
Grazer admits that the studio “had to be convinced that this was a movie that could be made.”
There were evidently several rewrites of the script prior to production, and this is unsurprising. The out-of-order storytelling is an interesting flourish, but would have be more effective if it had some focus – barely sketched out characters played by stellar actors, including Octavia Spencer and Dan Aykroyd (as Brown’s manager Ben Bart) flit in and out of the periphery.
Some appearances are little more than glorified cameos – Tika Sumpter as Yvonne Fair, one of Brown’s most famous backup singers and mistresses, has literally one line, and never directly interacts with Brown on screen. What was the point of including her at all?
Two of the more captivating and better utilized supporting players are “True Blood” star Nelsan Ellis as Brown’s best friend and musical collaborator, Bobby Byrd, and Viola Davis as his estranged mother. It is Brown’s relationship with these figures that provides the foundation for the most compelling scenes – scenes that reveal, if only fleetingly, the complex parts of Brown, the ugly parts of Brown – his insecurities, fear of abandonment, stubbornness, violence, regret.
But the most important aspect of any biopic is the actor who plays the subject, and it is Chadwick Boseman who saves this film. It helps that Boseman, who made his leading man debut in “42” last year, is a relative unknown. To play a figure as iconic, as familiar, and as parodied as Brown, the role needed an actor without his own veneer of celebrity.
Boseman pulls off a tightrope walk of a performance, never falling over towards the side of impersonation. He gracefully navigates another awkward storytelling device in the script – fourth-wall-breaking moments – when he looks into the camera and talks directly to the audience.
In his musical performances, all high points, he manages to capture the energy and almost superhuman physicality that made Brown’s live shows so legendary. There’s an eerie moment when Boseman, as an older Brown, walks down a dark corridor towards a concert stage – for a few brief seconds, it’s genuinely difficult to tell if it is the actor, or Brown himself, sauntering towards the camera.
The pacing may be messy, the direction disjointed, but its a testament to James Brown that his story and his music can ultimately withstand whatever structural flaws that plague this movie. The joy here is in reveling in Brown’s most iconic songs, and his complicated genius. Really, there are two electrifying performances we are watching – “James Brown,” and Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. There’s a satisfying overlap of seeing not only aspects of the real-life Brown come to life through the actor, but appreciating the craft and the mechanics of Boseman as a performer himself. Without him, “Get On Up” would be an amusing, if woefully incoherent ride.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.