Many artist biopics celebrate their subjects. “Get On Up” doesn’t make it that simple.
In the best scene from Tate Taylor’s biopic of James Brown with Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul, Brown suddenly realizes he’s surrounded by white people. During a song-and-dance bit on live television, the movie assumes Brown’s perspective as everything slows to a crawl, while the pasty faces around him merge into a collage of awkward dance moves and empty smiles. But despite his disgust, Brown doesn’t stop the performance or register a complaint with his manager (Dan Akroyd). Nothing matters more than the camera watching his every move.
Outside of that moment and a sequence later on when the singer struggles through a show in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, “Get On Up” mainly deals with race by implication. But it’s this fleeting snapshot that digs far deeper than anything else in the movie to explore Brown’s unique legacy: Rather than weaving activism or message-mongering into his public persona, Brown promoted his unique sound in terms of its exclusivity. He wanted it enjoyed on his terms. Though “Get On Up” never congeals into a satisfactory whole, its fragmentary portrait of the singer at the height of his fame — intercut with his troubled single-parent childhood — effectively shows his invasive power in popular culture. Brown brought his distinctive riff on R&B sounds to mainstream audiences on his own terms.
The movie testifies to that appeal almost exclusively through Boseman’s first-rate performance. While the narrative sags in parts and fails to generate an emotional hook on par with Brown’s rhythms, Boseman himself maintains a dynamic physicality that recognizes the singer’s ceaseless energy — as well as the hubris driving it. When a baffled record label executive complains about the lack of lyrics outside of the title word in “Please, Please, Please,” he’s told, “It’s not about the lyrics.” Indeed. It’s about Brown, snaking across the room, hollering into the microphone with a passion that bordered on insanity. Though certainly a warts-and-wall portrait, “Get On Up” struggles to get a grasp on its subject. But for the sheer force of movement and attitude Boseman brings to the character, Brown comes to life in unflattering detail as a fully self-involved musical genius.
As the singer’s ego expands with every onstage performance, he alienates his closest colleagues, including his longtime right-hand man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and band-members frustrated by their low pay rates. Taylor captures these scenes with a matter-of-fact approach that registers as little more than rudimentary melodrama. Some of the more extreme dark patches in Brown’s career, including a 1988 arrest, come and go so quickly that they seem like little more than CliffsNotes to the singer’s life.
It’s the actual performances where the full paradox of Brown’s output comes into view: He was a tremendous talent whose every move amounted to a publicity campaign. Lost in the fog of his performative abilities, he could never comprehend the concept of moderation, hence the rampant drug use and womanizing that ultimately sullied his career. Brown’s music, heavy with feeling and delectable beats, has a maniacal quality to it — as if the singer were unleashing his id on the audience. “Get On Up” pays homage to that skill. By doing so, it acknowledges the dangerous personality behind the myth. But is that all there is to it?
The closing performance, featuring the eponymous song, blends real footage of the singer with the fictional version to make one last statement about the constructed nature of Brown’s appeal. Despite that sophisticated insight into his career, the movie struggles to offer a narrative on par with its portraiture. “Don’t tell me when, where or how I can be funky,” Brown announces before doing a show for soldiers in Vietnam. “Get On Up” foregrounds that assertion in every scene, and ultimately becomes trapped by it. We get that Brown was a complicated egomaniac who made great music. But even as “Get On Up” magnifies that point, it creates the lingering sense that the singer has overtaken the stage one last time. It’s still his show.
“Get On Up” opens nationwide today. Browse other critics’ reactions here.