Awards season, naturally, equates to biopic season. Where this year’s British contenders fuss over starchy bigbrains (Turing in The Imitation Game, Hawking in the forthcoming The Theory of Everything), their American counterparts inevitably skew towards showier figures. Given its subject, it would be a crime if Get On Up, Tate Turner’s James Brown biog, settled for a pussy-footing, cookie-cutter narrative; even so, you may have to brace yourself for the approach Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth actually settle upon.
This Papa’s got a brand-new grab bag: everything gets tossed in there, shaken around, and then tipped out to see where it lands. The first ten minutes alone offer a bizarre (yet apparently true) anecdote in which a PCP-blitzed Brown points a shotgun at a woman he suspects of using his toilet; a flashback to the singer’s time dodging sniper fire on a USO trip to Vietnam; and a further flashback to Brown’s impoverished childhood out in the wilds of Georgia.
It’s just possible the film intends to show us how one formative, disruptive experience nestles inside another Russian doll-style, but it plays as if the filmmakers were hellbent on giving us several James Browns for the price of one: in biopic terms, we’re caught somewhere between the multiple Dylans of I’m Not There and the abject scrambling of Ma Vie en Rose.
Amid the whirlwind energy, we can discern certain constants: violence, for one, or as much violence as a PG-13 biopic is allowed to depict. Young James’s father (Lennie James) himself pulls a gun on his wife Susie (Viola Davis) after she attempts to take her boy away from him; an early brush with showbiz – involving a gospel group touring the prison Brown was sent to for stealing a suit (a telling biographical detail) – ends in a mass brawl; in so far as the film engages with the singer’s women, it’s to show the singer beating second wife DeeDee (Jill Scott).
Mostly, this is a one-man show: whichever incarnation of him we’re watching, Brown always ends up looking into the camera, and out towards some imagined audience. This life was a performance, we soon gather – sustained in the same way Brown strung out songs in concert for as long as the rhythm section could hold out – and at the very least it’s yielded a Georgia peach of a leading role.
Chadwick Boseman, the actor who brought the talismanic Jackie Robinson to life in last year’s 42, doesn’t look much like Brown – he’s too elongated and upright to do justice to the squat figure caught on film in such documentaries as 2009’s Soul Power. But he sounds like him – all self-aggrandising patter, only partly comprehensible in places – and he has the smile and the swagger, and crucially the peacocking spirit.
That stolen suit, coupled with the shoes we see the young JB relieving from a lynching victim, is central to the film’s conception of Brown as pop’s greatest salesman, a shameless careerist who emerged from the South peddling soul rather than snake oil. Get On Up hits its most consistent notes in a run of scenes set during that late 50s period that saw the building of pop as an industry: Brown effectively becomes an independent contractor, selling out his band and striking up his one truly sincere relationship, with manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd, a neat Blues Brothers connection).
We’re left watching the story of a man who overcame the turmoil in his life by exerting maximum control over everyone around him; how much we’re supposed to like anything other than the guy’s product is (deliberately?) obscured. Still, if the approach precludes any deeper understanding of who that guy was beyond the sum of some messy, unprocessed life experiences, Get On Up does have the not inconsiderable advantage of moving like James Brown: restlessly, sometimes stirringly, yet very much to the beat of its own drum.
(MovieMail, September 2014)
Get On Up screens on Channel 4 tonight at 11.30pm.