It’s been a couple of weeks since the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” opened in movie theaters across the country. But debate is still raging—from casual fans to music experts— about the ups and downs of “Get On Up.” And the range of critiques is like reading a critical tale of two cities.
In one corner there are those who wholeheartedly praise the film directed by Tate Taylor for its captivating portrayal of James Brown—the Godfather of Soul—by actor Chadwick Boseman. Those in this camp—and there are many—insist that Boseman’s performance, coupled with electrifying musical sequences and accurate depictions of Brown’s hard-driving style in business and in the studio with his musicians, compensate for, or at least balance out, the film’s problems. (It should be noted that even those who are highly critical of “Get On Up” have lauded Boseman’s performance.)
It should also be noted there is also universal acknowledgement, even among those who otherwise praise “Get On Up,” the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is problematic, chiefly the decision to bounce the film up and down Brown’s timeline.
The Chicago Tribune, for example, said, “But the Butterworths fracture the order, fruitfully. They’re more interested in making musical and dramatic connections across time and space—something in the ’70s triggering a childhood memory, for example—than in laying them out predictably.”
The New York Times, referred to that aspect of the film as a, “crude mash-up of past and present forces.” But, for those who have criticized “Get On Up,” the issues go far beyond this issue.
For many, the wide range of complaints included moments—like the film’s opening—where the portrayal of Brown bordered on caricature, numerous factual inaccuracies and a decision to water down certain aspects of Brown’s life. Adding to this is a suspicion among some critics that this was the result of “Get On Up” having an all-white creative team (screenplay, director, producers) including rock legend Mick Jagger.
Which group is right?
“Get On Up” is indeed a thoroughly entertaining feature film. Boseman’s performances as Brown from age 16 to 60 are riveting, electric and, the actor literally dazzles when it comes to recreating Brown’s legendary footwork and stage dynamics. Some critics have even mentioned Boseman as a contender when awards season rolls around and that notion doesn’t sound completely ridiculous. Boseman is that good.
But the other side of the “Get On Up” conundrum is that the film itself features plenty of show business gloss with little explanation of Brown’s complicated and sometimes contradictory and confusing life. Yes, his childhood in poverty and away from his abusive and neglectful parents would certainly explain some of his actions and egomania, but the film never actually draws that connection—we’re left to make the link on our own. One can also see a link between the pragmatism of the aunt who raised him while running a whorehouse and Brown’s own pragmatic approach to the music business, but again, the film simplifies this part of the story.
There’s a lot in Brown’s life that goes unexplained, from his legendary over the top taskmaster role with his band members, to his drug-fueled behavior, such as the opening scenes showing a shotgun-toting Brown confronting an employee for, um, ‘doing a number two,’ in his bathroom.
And then there are the things not shown in the movie at all. While some level of creative license is the norm with film biographies, there are major changes and omissions in the narrative in “Get On Up.” Some of these are relatively minor, such as when certain band members actually left. But other things, such as Brown’s pattern of battering his wives, abusing drugs and having run-ins with the police, are only barely hinted at in “Get on Up.”
The film also doesn’t delve into Brown’s musical legacy and how he laid the foundation for today’s hip-hop music.
The biggest transgression, critics maintain, is that “Get On Up” barely deals with Brown’s role as a revolutionary figure during the Black Power Movement. The film shows two moments where Brown’s activism came into play, but Brown’s role was far more extensive than his concert after the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr. and recording the anthem, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Of course, the film also doesn’t deal with the confusing complexities of Brown’s life. “Get On Up,” for example, doesn’t show that Brown refused to perform that famous concert unless he was paid up front. And it also doesn’t show that in real life, the kids chanting in “Say It Loud” were mostly white and Asian.
There’s also no mention in the film of Brown’s controversial endorsement of President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. The decision so angered the black community that there were pickets outside of his concerts, and black militant groups called for a nationwide boycott of Brown’s concerts. Brown also unabashedly supported the avowed segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, saying in interviews that Thurmond was like a grandfather to him.
Perhaps showing those realities would have required more explanation than the film had time to explore. This is, after all, a Hollywood feature film. The narrative that has been crafted, while not entirely true, is nice and tidy in a way that Brown’s real life never was. And, as most Hollywood feature films do, “Get On Up” clocks in around the average two- hour mark, a crucial necessity in the realities of feature films.
There may yet be more of the realities of James Brown’s life to be seen in an upcoming documentary about Brown, also produced by Jagger.
But “Get On Up,” while thoroughly entertaining, never gets to the heart of who the real James Brown was.
—Karyn D. Collins