Unlike other musical biopics, such as "Lady Sings the Blues," "Ray" and "Walk the Line" — which involved the work of singers who either weren't of my generation or of my liking — "Get on Up," Tate Taylor's look at James Brown, hit me personally. Brown was hitting his prime just as I was graduating from high school, and he had a profound influence on those of my generation.
So, I tried to control my expectations about what a Hollywood filmmaker such as Taylor would do with Brown's story. Even so, I was disappointed, as the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio demonstrates. A transcript of my review follows:
I used to laugh when my high school friend Billy Wells would pretend to be James Brown, lip-syncing to songs such as “Prisoner of Love” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” He would imitate Brown’s stage antics, which involved dancing to apparent exhaustion, collapsing, being led offstage by his bandmates – in those days the Famous Flames – only to break away, return to the spotlight and continue to sing about, mostly, that desperate, elusive emotion called love.
And so I was particularly interested in “Get on Up,” Tate Taylor’s bio-pic of Brown. Billy and I had experienced the real thing, so I wondered how Hollywood would interpret Brown’s rise-from-the-ashes, but always troubled, success story. And, to be fair, “Get on Up” gets much of the basics right. As the movie makes clear, the real James Brown was fortunate to survive his birth, much less become one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century. The rhythmic gyrations that Brown performed onstage masked a lot of pain, rage and, the source of it all, fear.
Multiple references – including various Brown biographies – were used as source material for what Taylor (writer-director of “The Help”) has put onscreen, though in true Hollywood tradition the movie amends and even invents situations for dramatic purposes. Brown was born dead, but was quickly revived. His father was a neglectful abuser who was absent for long periods. He was abandoned by his mother. He was sent to prison for stealing clothes. He did live for a time in a brothel. He and his friend Bobby Byrd had a mercurial friendship that continued until Brown’s death in 2006. Brown himself was a single-minded, complex individual who was both a focal point of black pride and a serial womanizer known to abuse his wives – he had four in all. And, no, a plane he was traveling in while touring Vietnam wasn’t nearly shot down, but in 1988 he did engage in a wild interstate car chase with police.
Enough occurred in Brown’s life to warrant an entire miniseries. And that’s probably the route that Taylor should have taken, because as it turns out many of the artistic choices he did make to re-create all this in a mere two-hours-and-28-minutes feel as wrong as – in the context of “Get on Up” – Frankie Avalon wearing a dashiki.
Unlike other such musical biopics – “Ray,” say, or “Walk the Line” – Taylor opts for a non-chronological framework that blends far too many contrasting styles: breaking the fourth wall with irritating inconsistency, employing lengthy musical scenes filmed as if he’s Jonathan Demme shooting a Talking Heads concert, introducing characters only to drop them, letting Dan Aykroyd play Brown’s agent with all the subtlety of a bad Saturday Night Live routine. The result is a film that, even anchored by Brown’s marvelous songs lip-synced by the hard-working Chadwick Boseman, isn’t half as profound it pretends to be.
If James Brown isn’t somewhere shaking his head in frustration over “Get on Up,” I can assure you one thing: My friend Billy Wells and I certainly are.