For several years Spike Lee talked about doing a James Brown biopic starring Wesley Snipes. This was fairly recently, like while Wesley was locked up. Man, I couldn’t quite picture what that would be like, and I really wanted to find out. But I figured even if Wesley could pull off the role I wasn’t sure a movie about James Brown could ever work. Would a movie really be able to show his incredible genius without toning down what a horrible person he was?
When I heard somebody besides Lee was doing the James Brown biopic, and that it was the guy that did the fucking HELP, I was not happy. And who do they have playing The Godfather? Chadwick Boseman, same guy who already played Jackie Robinson in that other movie that that other white director did before Spike Lee could. I bet this Boseman guy has nightmares about getting stomped by Air Jordans.
And the trailers didn’t help. With quick clips of Boseman in a wig lip synching James Brown, you couldn’t really tell if he looked that much like him, same with the dialogue. And there was a version with interviews of rappers and Mick Jagger and stuff talking about how important James Brown is. What the fuck is this approach? Who is this demographic of fucking weirdos who have no idea who James Brown is but will see a movie about him if Mick Jagger recommends it? What, did they already see a video of Taylor Swift or Macklemore or somebody explaining how important Mick Jagger is?
But you know what, I wanted to see GET ON UP anyway because even a real standard, mediocre book report on James Brown would at least be celebrating the music I love. It might be okay, right? Like a funky version of RAY? It’ll probly start with James backstage in Boston, MLK has just been killed and they’re telling him he can’t go on because there will be riots, and he flashes back to when he was a kid, and–
Actually, no. I was so happy when the movie started with crazy old man James Brown in a green velvet track suit, blasting his own music in a pickup truck in an empty strip mall parking lot. He pulls up to his office building. His tenants in a neighboring suite are having some kind of business seminar, and he storms in with a rifle on his shoulder and starts ranting about somebody taking a shit in his toilet. It’s scary and funny and it’s not how I expected a suspected square like the guy that did THE HELP to start the movie.
And from there it doesn’t flash back, it just jumps to a moment of chaos. James and a six-member band are in a plane in Vietnam, bombs exploding all around them as they head to a USO date. James is complaining to the pilot about not being able to bring his 22 piece funk orchestra, and then he fines Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) twenty bucks for cursing.
And then we do see him as a dirt poor child living in a shack with no windows, having to duck the kind of confusing, traumatic violence and disrespect between parents that set the stage for this turbulent life. (It’s kind of funny that it skips around in time, because it’s from the writers of EDGE OF TOMORROW.)
The childhood scenes with his father (Lennie James from The Walking Dead) and mother (Viola Davis) are pretty scary, and I love the scene where he rebels by making a beat with a stick on a table. After his dad flips out on him he has a bloody smile of triumph. Think about that next time you listen to “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”
It’s all handled much more artfully than I expected, but yes, it also comes down to Boseman being simply incredible in this role. He does the dancing and everything (apparently with no experience in that sort of thing) and in the old man makeup his head even looks mis-proportioned and weird like the real thing. I saw James Brown in concert two times, the last time in 2000 for the opening of the Experience Music Project museum here. I remember standing near the front of that stage seeing him close up and thinking jesus, this guy looks like an alien. His waistline is at his pecs, his body tiny, his head double-wide, his eyes far apart, that giant hair… at the time it seemed to make sense that that was part of his appeal. He was not human. Boseman looks more like a human, but he does a good job of physically implying James Brown. That’s something that didn’t come across to me in the ads and photos.
And to me there are actually things more important than the dancing and the physical resemblance, like the voice and the attitude and the strut and the unpredictable anger. We can always watch footage of the real James Brown performing, but not so much off stage. And I loved seeing Boseman go from age 17 to 60something, through pompadours, afros and sweaty messes; suits, leotards and fur coats; giving people attitude and speeches and talking about himself in the third person. Somebody should add up how many times just his character says “James Brown” in this movie. The number’s gotta be astronomical.
He molds himself from Little Junior, brothel orphan, to James Brown, guy with his name on the tail of his private jet. He created James Brown. At the end he’s strutting around saying “I’m James Brown! I’m James Brown!” over and over again. It’s like the end of MALCOLM X except a whole school room of kids doesn’t get to be him. It’s a more exclusive club.
And in this movie James Brown is like some kind of extra-dimensional being. Not only does he jump around in time, he can see us watching him. At one point he’s performing and asking a crowd if they’re doing all right, then he looks at us and asks us too. At another point his associate (Dan Aykroyd, who worked with the real James Brown in THE BLUES BROTHERS) is explaining to him why he can’t promote a tour the way he wants to, and James turns and gives us a look like “Can you believe this bullshit?” Then he just gets up and walks away, goes into the kitchen and explains to us how he’s gonna do it while he gets a plate of chicken.
He has the charisma of Soul Brother #1 but I’m happy that it doesn’t overshadow him being a fucking asshole. There’s only one wife beating scene sitting in for all of them, but it’s a really upsetting one that happens out of the blue during blissful holiday cheer, and in one of the two scenes I noticed that playfully re-create imagery from his album covers. Way to catch me off guard.
Then there’s the way he treats his band, underpaying them, fining them, lecturing them, causing two great bands to walk out on him. He has the gall to get pissed at Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, who played MLK in Lee Daniels’ LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) – who got him out of jail as a teenager, convinced his family to shelter and feed him, and was his subservient sidekick and cape-draper for years – just for dreaming about doing a solo show some day. What a fucking dick.
In many ways this is the story of the odd friendship between James and Bobby. After all, “Get On Up” is the part Bobby says. If it was just about James it would be called “GET UPPAH!”
As a fan of the funk there are little things that seemed inaccurate to me, but the non-linear story and sometimes dreamy feel make that stuff go down easier. And of course there’s no way to include everything you want to see in there, especially about all the great musicians he worked with. Bobby and Maceo are the only legendary J.B.’s that get many lines, and it makes it seem like Maceo is just some jobber who does it for the money, doesn’t really understand funk, is almost ungrateful. Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought from The Roots) is in there a little bit as Pee Wee Ellis, the hiring of Bootsy is referenced, though they never clearly showed the actor who plays him, and a drummer is called off as “Clyde,” Stubblefield I assume. I didn’t notice anybody playing Fred Wesley. In fact, we never even hear the name The J.B.’s.
I was kinda surprised there wasn’t a Rumble in the Jungle section, but then if you can’t get Will Smith as Ali, and you gotta spend the money to fake Africa, and some of the other musicians that were there… maybe it would be a bad idea to include it.
One subtle detail I like is in the nightmarish scene where little James and a bunch of other black boys fight a one-armed boxing battle royale for the entertainment of rich white folks. The kids have big numbers painted on their bare chests and James is #1. There’s a band playing during the fight and he looks down and he sees into the future and suddenly they’re his band and they’re playing his song. From this act of abuse and humiliation comes power. He is #1, as in Soul Brother #1, as in play the note on the 1 beat and you got funk.
My favorite thing about this movie is that it lets us hang out with this crazy motherfucker. I like seeing him fly into a combat zone and immediately start lecturing an officer about the funk and James Brown does this and James Brown does that. I like hearing him rap to himself during his infamous police chase. But also being a little kid and wandering into a revival tent, walking into the crowd of people dancing and singing, looking like he stumbled across a secret amusement park in the woods.
To me this succeeds as a biopic because it doesn’t try to succinctly explain James Brown the person, or humanize him, exactly. He’s still a figure of legend. At the beginning he’s hurtling wrecklessly through the air, at the end down roads, in the middle through woods, literally dodging bombs and bullets. Throughout decades he’s mounting stage after stage, leaving behind trails of families and bands and although he makes a gesture of friendship at the end, and although Boseman sometimes shows on his face that JB has more awareness about what he’s doing than he lets on, he never seems like he is just a man. He’s always James Brown. James Brown! For what that’s worth.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.