James Brown Killed Dumb Biopics: Why the Messy Get On Up Gets It Right

James Brown Killed Dumb Biopics: Why the Messy <i>Get On Up</i> Gets It Right
Universal Pictures

James Brown stripped pop to its rhythmic essentials: the groove and the grunt, the bridge, and the scream. Tate Taylor’s Get On Up likewise reduces James Brown—and the biopic form—to all that matters most. Here are the highs of the man’s life, both artistic and recreational. More important, here’s his presence. Taylor invites us to thrill to Chadwick Boseman’s Brown onstage, to cringe at him off it, to laugh with and at him, to hate and admire him, and to kind of feel as if we have some idea of where he’s coming from. But the movie—written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth—never lies to us that we can fully understand him.

That’s a breakthrough for commercial filmmaking. It’s hard to psychoanalyze a folk hero, but studio-picture screenwriting demands that films about great lives usually try. That means Walk the Line must suggest that a childhood tragedy is the root cause of all those years when Johnny Cash was hopped up on pills and tearing new assholes for everyone who loved him. That’s the wrong kind of reduction, cutting the powerful chord of selfness to just a single, clanging note.

See also: Stephanie Zacharek’s Get On Up review

Get On Up digs into Brown’s own hardscrabble upbringing, a broke-ass boyhood of petty crime and long-gone parents, all caught up in the sweaty exaltation of cathouse and church house both. But the movie presents each hardscrabble detail as just another messy chunk of Brown’s mad totality. That moment he stole shoes off a hanged man doesn’t explain James Brown, just as his endorsement of Nixon a quarter century later could. The filmmakers get that Brown the man was like the funk he forged. He beat “Cold Sweat” from everything that came before it, from everything that surged inside and around him, not any one thing in particular.

One of the film’s best moments is a rehearsal between Brown and his first great band, the Clyde Stubblefield/Maceo Parker/Pee Wee Ellis group. Brown is raging at Parker, a sax-man trained in music theory, because Parker has dared to suggest that one of Brown’s instructions is, technically speaking, not “musical.” Brown responds like the worst/best teacher you’ve ever had: vain and pedantic and infuriatingly right, pointing out that in his band, keys and time signatures and notions of musicality are all subordinate to feel and sound.

Further, in his band, he insists, every instrument is a drum. The movie’s like that, too: There’s no “Rosebud” because every moment is a Rosebud. Every moment of James Brown’s life was the most important moment of James Brown’s life because—and this is very important—he was James goddamn Brown.

Get On Up is itself a mess, its tone confused and its drama negligible. A scene of apparent sketch comedy will fall into a scene of dramatic spousal abuse, which will cut into a blistering (lip-synched) live performance. But, seriously, isn’t that something like the way time with James Brown might have actually been? Occasionally he narrates his own movie, in-scene, and the effect isn’t distracting the way it was in Jersey Boys. Watch the real James Brown turkey-cock about in the great documentary Soul Power: Dude was always narrating himself, often in third person, often hilariously.

Here are other key ways that Get On Up smashes the template of dreary prestige biopics such as Ray. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest here that it’s probably Walk Hard that first killed movies such as Ray. Even if you didn’t laugh at Jake Kasdan’s bang-on parody, you might at least appreciate that in its wake, filmmakers have been avoiding the clichés it speared.)

This James Brown Is Liberated From Cornpone Biopic Lesson-Learning
James Brown was a force, a pioneer, a genius, a villain, a cartoon, an institution in his own time. He certainly wasn’t given to crises of conscience. He doesn’t grow or change the way movie heroes usually must; he just ages. So, of course, the standard three-act structure doesn’t fit. Instead of a Walk the Line-style price-of-fame breakdown, and then a come-to-Jesus repentance, Get On Up builds to a PCP-fueled car chase, a stint in the slammer, and then the man himself, well older than 60, staring into a mirror and saying his own name as if he still can’t get over how great it is to be him. In the final moments, he does perform an act of kindness for old friend Bobby Byrd, but it’s a performance—Brown singing, onstage, the only place he was guaranteed to be what everyone wanted him to.

Get On Up Doesn’t Dwell On the Miserable
Guess what? Being married to Johnny Cash or James Brown would be terrible. Get On Up makes this abundantly clear in just a few smart, sharp scenes. Then it gives us extended concert scenes, that famous near-riot in Boston the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and a hilarious lesson on how Brown broke out of the music industry’s longstanding promotion racket. Meanwhile, over in Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash suffers and yowls in scene after miserable scene—wouldn’t it be more satisfying to emphasize the times when Cash was awesome?

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