Here’s a fun fact: James Brown was known as Soul Brother #1 and he never had a Number One pop hit.
Brown put 99 songs on the chart over a 30 year career which puts him on the Top 10 of the most successful pop artists. The closest the undisputed Hardest Working Man in Show Biz got to the top spot was “I Got You (I Feel Good)” at #3 and “Living In America” which got it to #4 with 21 years passing between the two hits.
This is not something you are going to learn in the new James Brown biopic, Get On Up? This simplistic, spineless biopic runs a Hoover over any dirt in Brown’s life with only the briefest glances at his dark corners. When the producers fired Spike Lee off the project and replaced him with Tate The Help Taylor it was natural to expect the rough edges of Brown would be filed down, but who knew they would suck the soul right out of The Godfather of Soul?
The wife and I had a free pass to see Get On Up. The price was right, but the movie is all wrong. It stole 2 hours and 18 minutes I will never get back.
There is a difference between a film that rolls back the carpet and shows all the dirt its subject did in their lives and one which blows sloppy, slobbering kisses. This is the latter and Brown’s bad habits of overindulgence in drugs and drink, spousal abuse, womanizing, and bizarre behavior is briefly referring to and then cuts away to another musical number.
The sheer energy of the classic James Brown music almost saves this sanitized Hollywood hackery and there’s a lot of music here (though the absence of “The Payback” is one of many glaring omissions). Chadwick Boseman‘s version of Soul Brother#1 is energetic. He learned a lot of Brown’s moves, but as far as capturing his character, Eddie Murphy did it about as well on Saturday Night Live decades ago. Boseman tries hard and some approving critics rave he gives an Oscar-caliber performance. It’s okay, but only if you didn’t grown up with Brown the way I did.
When the music stops so does the movie dead in its track with Taylor spasmodically jerking the viewer through time and place with the attention span of a housefly. At one point I leaned forward in my seat with my chin in my hand in wonder of Taylor’s muddled, cluttered direction.
Get On Up never gets on the good foot. Mostly it just kind of lays there and rolls over. How the hell do you take James Brown and make him so damn BORING? It’s not a certainty Lee would have made a better movie but he wouldn’t have made a duller one.
What motivated Brown to write an anthem of Black pride and power like “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud? Why did he sing that same song at Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball in 1968 and endorse him in 1972? You’ll never know from the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth which reduces the singer’s political activism to mostly a footnote. The same guy who counted Al Sharpton as a buddy also voted as a conservative Republican. Nobody will buy a ticket expecting details on this apparent contradiction, but it’s a tantalizing and largely facet of Brown’s character. Taylor and the Butterworths don’t even find it worth a mention.
When this movie isn’t being sloppy it is simply superficial. Brown’s music made him an icon. Get On Up makes him nothing but a jukebox.
We’re long past the point where we should be falling to our knees like Brown singing “Please, Please, Please” in slobbering gratitude whenever White Hollywood deems to tell a Black icon’s story. Not every film with Black people at the center of the film has to be exclusively produced, directed, written, scored or filmed by Black filmmakers, but it would be nice if more of them were.
For every Malcolm X or Raging Bull that works, there are dozens of other bio pics that fail dismally and for me, nobody else, Get On Up is a missed opportunity and a boring failure.