‘Get On Up’: James Brown Imagined

"You see where this thing is going" from the first frames of Get On Up. But you also wish you didn't; you wish that it would have been smarter, more nuanced, and less fantastic.

“You see where this thing is going?” James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) is looking at the camera, which is to say, you, as he sits across from Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd). While Bart is explaining to him the “rules” of the music industry, including payola and management and artist contracts. Brown has other ideas, which he’s already explained to you while walking through the backroads restaurant where he’s picked up a plate piled high with fried fish, which he now sets on the table between him and Bart. “You forget,” Bart’s just said, “I don’t only work for James Brown.” And yes, you do know exactly where this thing is going.

The moment is one of several in Get On Up where Brown addresses the camera directly, inviting you to feel part of his plan and sometimes his chaos, reminding you that you’re watching a movie about a famous real life person who helped to change the way music industry works, and oh yes, to declare to audiences in 1968, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Such moments might also help you to feel a little less flummoxed by the movie’s untidy structure, its lurching from year to year and theme to theme, its episodic historical touchstones: here’s James Brown meeting the Rolling Stones, here’s James Brown calming a crowd in Boston after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and here’s James Brown beating his wife.

Some of these mishmashy moments convey the turbulence of the artist’s life. His childhood was famously harrowing, briefly noted in scenes where the boy James Brown (played by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) observes and endures abuse by his father (Lennie James) and abandonment by his mother Susie (Viola Davis). It’s unclear when the family moves from a South Carolina shack to Augusta, Georgia, but young, lanky James does spend a few years living with Auntie Honey (Octavia Spencer) in her brothel (“I guess everyone gotta be someplace sometime,” she sniffs, when his dad drops him off). In this version of Brown’s life, the aunt bestows on him a singular appreciation for money and a belief that he’s special (“One day, everybody going to know your name”). As eagerly as Auntie Honey has him soliciting johns for money, she also urges his salvation by music, and so Brown finds his way in and out of jail and into a group called the Famous Flames, featuring Brown’s devoted friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis).

Brown might develop an affection for his aunt, but he certainly develops an abiding, understandable fury at his mom, which may or may not inform his difficult relationships with women going forward. The film indicates that he’s married more than once, that he’s ambitious and egotistical (“I knew the day I was born,” he says, that he’d be a star), and even that he uses his children as props (perhaps following Brown’s own lead, as he brings them along to press conferences), but otherwise, presents little of Brown’s personal biography. It’s a strategy that makes sense, in telling the story of a man who was so supremely performative, for so long, but it also results in the sort of broad, cartoonish characterizations that also spoiled director Tate Taylor’s previous film, The Help.

Here the cartoons are occasionally redoubled, in that Brown was fond of the outsized act too. His interaction with Little Richard (Brandon Smith) is here reduced to a couple of scenes, one where he and the Flames grab Little Richard’s stage while he takes a break, and the next where Little Richard offers advice at the burger joint where he’s working because he can’t yet make a go of his music career. As Little Richard faces Brown, their matching pompadours like mirror reflections, it’s hard to tell what’s most striking, his caution regarding the “white devil” or his flamboyant flirtation with his would-be protégée.

If this crazily imagined moment suggests Little Richard is struggling because he won’t quite play ball with the establishment, another suggests just how far Brown was willing to go to do just that. During a taping of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” for the movie Ski Party, his clownish appearance in a red ski sweater, surrounded by white kids in turtlenecks and stretch pants is actually rather too like what was actually produced for the Frankie Avalon movie. It makes you wonder how the man survived his own success.

And this is the most emphatic point made by Get On Up. As brutal as Brown could be with his own band members and his wives, as troubled by drugs, traumas, and paranoia as he might have been, his genius is undeniable. Boseman’s evocation of the dancing helps to show some of that, and also goes some distance toward distracting from the bad aging makeup and the “greatest hits” approach to story structure. But it also might make you want to see and treasure the Real James Brown (duly noted in this film’s final credits sequence of photos). “You see where this thing is going” from the first frames of Get On Up. But you also wish you didn’t, that it would have been smarter, more nuanced, and less fantastic, less the cartoonish portrait that James Brown too often performed to try to beat that white devil at his ongoing game.

RATING 5 / 10