Johnny Carson once remarked that he was great in front of 10 million people but not so good in front of just 10. The same can be said for the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown, based on what we see in the new biopic, “Get On Up.” Throughout the film we see Brown (Chadwick Boseman) disrespecting the women in his life, his loyal band and his longtime best friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), yet he is a tour de force when he gets on stage as large audiences go into a frenzy when he breaks into his “hardest working man in show business” persona as he sings, knocks the microphone stand back and forth, and dances in such a way that it looks as if he is defying gravity. The fact that he is lip syncing Brown’s vocals doesn’t detract.
Boseman, the fine young actor who credibly portrayed Jackie Robinson in “42” two years ago, truly channels James Brown here with his fast patter; his tendency to address everyone around him by mister and their surnames; and how he always refers to himself in the third person.
The film shows why Brown was an influence on nearly everyone who came after him in the world of both rhythm and blues and rock. Director Tate Taylor takes the time to show Brown was introduced to white America as he recreates his appearance in the 1965 flick, “Ski Party,” which was the teen answer to “Some Like It Hot,” as well as using actual footage from the 1964 concert movie, “The T.A.M.I Show” that featured such diverse talent as Lesley Gore, Jan & Dean, and the Rolling Stones. Coincidentally, Mick Jagger is one of the producers of “Get On Up.”
With all of these things going for it, “Get On Up,” squanders a lot needlessly. You get a headache watching the timelines constantly shift all over the place. The film starts in 1988 and then randomly shifts decades back and forth throughout.
Aside from Brown’s rise from a troubled childhood in Augusta, we learn very little about why he is the way he is. For example the film opens with a 55-year-old Brown shooting off a rifle at an insurance seminar that is taking place in one of the buildings that he owns. He then gets into a wild chase with local police before being arrested and eventually serving time in prison. Yet there is no rationale for why someone who has been such a successful musician and businessman would behave that way.
“Get On Up” focuses on Brown’s relationship with two key men in his life, his best friend and fellow singer Bobby Byrd and his manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd).
Byrd discovered Brown’s talent in 1949 when his gospel group was singing in a prison where he was serving time for stealing a suit. Byrd arranged for James’ release and eventually they formed the Famous Flames. Bobby readily accepts the fact that Brown was meant to be the front man and that it’s his fate to be in the background. He spends most of the film being an apologist for Brown’s boorish behavior until JB turns on him. I was beginning to wonder when “Wind Beneath My Wings” would start playing in the background.
Ben Bart may have been the only person that James Brown truly revered. Although he only possessed a seventh-grade education Brown had great business instincts, and unlike a lot of other musicians of his era, he held onto his wealth. Aykroyd smartly plays Bart as one part accountant, one part promoter and one part psychologist.
All biographical movies take artistic license with historical fact, Brown’s chance meeting with fellow Georgia rocker Little Richard comes off as a Hollywood cliche.
While we learn a lot about the Famous Flames, we never hear a peep about Brown’s very successful ’70s backing combo, Fred Wesley and the JBs.
The film does showcase most of Brown’s big hits including “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Sex Machine,” “Cold Sweat,” “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” and “Say It Loud, Say It Proud,” but his last big hit, and the one most recognizable to Gen Xers, “Living in America,” from one of the “Rocky” films is not included.
Brown’s first true pop chart breakthrough hit was 1965’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” This film is a mixed bag at best.