The musical biopic has proved surprisingly durable and accommodating. Who would have figured almost seventy years after the Cole Porter biography Night and Day (1946) would bring us Get On Up (2014), a picture just as tuneful and, in its 21st century way, just as dissimulating concerning the actual stuff of its subject’s life?
|Chadwick Boseman as James Brown|
In some ways we’ve come a long way since the days when Cole Porter’s sexuality was completely concealed in his own life story, even while hiding in plain sight in his lyrics. Get on Up, features a remarkable scene with a provocative, sexually transgressive Little Richard (Brandon Smith), as well as touching, albeit fleetingly, on some of the more painful aspects of the James Brown story: beginning with his abject poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, though life in a Georgia whorehouse (run by his grandmother), and including incarceration as a teen for stealing a suit. Yet the genius(?) of Get On Up renders a term in a fifties jailhouse in the South as sprightly as the Yale Glee Club.
In fact, it all glides along so darn smoothly that I had trouble reconciling this James Brown with the man whose name appeared in eighties’ talk show monologues as a caricature of rock star excess and abuse. Get On Up has many virtues (I’ll get to those later), but verisimilitude does not happen to be one of them. While it might seem perverse to structure a movie about a man who famously ran through wives and band-members like water around the idea of his evolving interpersonal skills, insofar as Get on Up can be said to have a particular approach, this is it. (Director Taylor Hackford applies the same thick gloss matte here that he did in The Help, a style which renders even shit pie an amusing trifle. I’d say this was merely a matter of cinematography except that it very much extends to the emotional life of the characters. )
From a narrative point of view, it’s fascinating to consider the ways in which Get on Up both entertains and exorcises Brown’s volatile relationships. The film must deal with his monomaniacal control issues, but chooses to do so through the lens of two enduring relationships.
The first of these two totemic figures is based on long-time band-member Bobby Byrd, a real person. In the film, it’s Brown who helps secure early release from jail for the talented young singer, and, even as the rest of The Famous Flames, the group with whom Brown makes his first recordings but which disbanded as Brown increasingly seized control and credit. Byrd, a real person, also represents a rationale for Brown’s dictatorial behavior within the band. In several key scenes where Brown repeatedly fines, berates and otherwise is borderline abusive with his band, Byrd is shown loyally sticking with his friend even as others depart in droves, muttering imprecations.
Byrd was in fact a real musician, but within the film he is very much the audience’s stand-in, justifying with his presence and periodically with noble speeches, why we might want to stick with this turkey over the long haul.
|James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis)|
The answer, rendered explicitly on numerous occasions by Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, is that James Brown is a remarkable genius who will be remembered by history. Byrd is seen as wisely seizing his chance to support someone truly exceptional, continuously reinforcing this point by his own ongoing presence in the film while legions of other musicians fall by the wayside, whiny and exchangeable.
This rendering is plausible, sort of true, and also highly strategic. While focusing on a musician of mediocre talent who is content to remain a supporting player to one of history’s greats, Get On Up discounts the contributions of the many extremely talented players who went on to successful music careers of their own. Included among these is Bootsy Collins, whose name is ever-so-briefly heard in the air, but who receives almost no screen time.
|Real life James Brown with equally real Bootsy Collins|
In real life, Collins has recounted how at first he adored Brown as the father he never had, then, in light of subsequent experiences, decided fathers were on the whole overrated.
Collins’ story, willfully excluded in the film, shows that the circuit of Brown’s creativity did not work in one direction: he drew enormous amounts from the young, energetic performers he was so good at attracting, but through his inability to collaborate, invariably forced to move on.
But at least there was a Bobby Byrd, and he did stay in the band longer than most. The way the film treats Brown’s wife, DeeDee, moves much closer to actual deception. For one thing, the movie leaves the distinct impression that Brown had one early marriage, then moved on to the woman with whom he spent the rest of his life (In reality, Brown was married four times.). But more troubling is the film deals with Brown’s violence toward women, unavoidable since it erupted very publicly at various points in his career.
Get on Up deals with the subject in a pair of very deceptive scenes. In one, Brown generously, if maybe a bit ostentatiously, hands out silver dollars for Christmas in front of the impressive house he’s acquired, spies a white neighbor looking down DeeDee’s low-cut elf suit. When they go in the house, a confused and upset Brown hits DeeDee, who we then see weeping on the floor. In a paired scene, however, Brown once again berates DeeDee for looking too sexy and available at a party and seems on the verge of striking her again. Instead she deflects him with a joke, and they begin a pre-coital dance on the bed.
|Loyal wife DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott) holds James Brown (Chadwick Boseman)|
Without any actual lies, we are given the emotional impression that the blows were an exceptional occurrence, one that was resolved as Brown and his marriage matured. The reality was more wives and more beatings.
The young British screenwriting duo Jez and John Henry Butterworth (brothers) have crafted an unusual, ever-shifting chronology that easily facilitates such sleights of hand. There are many admirable things about this structure, for one thing it lends a fresh feel to the storytelling. They don’t have to belabor the connections between early life and later behavior that quickly become tiresome in the usual bio-pic. The Butterworths make the admirable discovery that you can make the same point more powerfully and economically simply by juxtaposing the two points in time.
The Butterworths, who won a Writers’ Guild award for their screenplay about the Valerie Plame Wilson affair, Fair Game, seem to have picked up a thing or two in their time with spies about the strategic deployment of information. When a simple shift in focus or tone can convey the intended impression, there is no need for the uncouthness of a lie. Whether they learned from Karl Rove that facts are simply what you need at the moment, or from Quentin Tarantino that they are simply an element of historical wish-enactment, postmodern cinema takes only the most passing interest in reality.
In that it resembles the old cinema: In any case, Get On Up is, righteously enough, more interested in Brown's musical legacy than his personal life. The film, rated PG13, is clearly intended to win over the several generations since James Brown held the world stage and helped invent rock and roll. Where Get On Up shines is in tracing the origins of the Brown’s music, and explaining non-didactically, what made it so different, and most of all, recreating the astounding performances which made his name.
|History is written by the victors|
This is hagiography with an infectious beat. And after several hours dancing in the dark in my theater seat, the film did its work. Count me a latter-day convert to the Church of Funk.
I was blind, but now I see. --Grace Lovelace