Tate Taylor’s biopic of James Brown, Get On Up, opens in grim sopor. A white man lectures in what looks like strip-mall meeting hall, a crowd of mostly white people tries to listen; the walls look like they lost their color the moment they went up; the plastic chairs look like they never, and could not possibly have had, any. A white woman uses the bathroom. James Brown appears in a pickup truck and a green tracksuit. He holds a shotgun. He takes the white woman to task for using his bathroom and fires a shot into the plastic ceiling. At some point in this seen-through-a-dirty-aquarium assemblage, the film’s title appears in cheap neon cursive in a window.
But this isn’t really the beginning of the film; no, the film technically begins with Brown (Chadwick Boseman) striding through an underground tunnel, in and out of the overhanging white lights. And yes, the crowd noises filter in from above. James Brown is ready to take the stage, and his life is calling. We’ve been here before. But then comes the pickup truck and the tracksuit and the shot into the ceiling, and we have not been here before.
Get On Up, written by the English brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, plays fast and loose with the facts; normally this bothers me more, I think, than it bothers other people. This film earns its flight from reality with passion carried through voltage and through realness on the personal and emotional levels, if not the literal ones, much like Floyd Mutrux’s sadly-flopped American Hot Wax, which channeled the birth of rock and roll. Tate’s intensity recalls Leon Ichaso’s El Cantante, the biopic of Hector Lavoe which tossed away off-handedly the fine points of biography in favor of concert scenes and behind-the-scenes scenes with the same blaze, moving like God had a thumb on the fast-forward.
But Get On Up does not only move forward. Tate, playing God, has other designs on James Brown.
The singer must move through lightness and darkness, because his life is calling in the form of the audience above. Yes. He must experience Primal Pain as a child. He must forge friendship and family, he must betray both, he must re-Primal re-crack, he must hit bottom, he must have redemption. He must smile for the camera, and the audience, at the end, and he must smile in contrition and relief.
Taylor and the Butterworths understand all this; certainly they’ve watched Taylor Hackford’s Ray and James Mangold’s Walk The Line, released roughly a decade ago and since that time the benchmarks and accepted procedure for the music biopic. I told my movie date that Get On Up was “disjointed.” She disagreed, but didn’t have as much trouble with “fragmented” and “recursive.”
So the movie hits all the cues from the paragraph above, but breaks Brown’s life into segments and arranges them in a bold riposte to chronology. Throw in judicious fantasy sequences. Simmer and sizzle. The twin betrayals, of his mother (Viola Davis) and the man who saved him from dissipation in prison, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), occur intertwined, cinematically, but decades apart. He can’t forgive his mother for leaving, and her leaving stilled his soul. He cannot love anyone past the end of his own nose, although he sometimes tries.
I wonder if we forget how threaded through the national skein Mr. Brown, as he likes to be called, was. I knew that he insisted on taking the stage in Boston on the night after Martin Luther King was killed—or, in common parlance, “they killed Dr. King.” James Sullivan from the Boston Globe and author of a book on that show, felt that Boston could have exploded that night, and furthermore, that the explosion from that show could have burned outward, past the city limits, past the state line, producing a genuine American Race War In The Streets, or, if you prefer, the American Civil War Mark II.
I’d seen the footage from the broadcast of Brown stopping the show as one front-row man jumps onstage to be pushed back by the cops. Others follow; a man in a cap tries working the crowd, a young boy in a similar cap seems overjoyed to stand next to Brown. Everyone onstage wants to dance.
I watched the recreation of this moment by Tate, but what startled me, going back to the original clip, was how close Tate hewed. For this few minutes, the director withholds his liberty-taking on facts. Brown really did tell the crowd “We are black, we are black!”, insisting that the crowd, black, could solve its own problems and defuse its own incendiaries. He also actually insisted that he needed to finish the show. His fame and his ego were soluble into the news. Into the breach.