Pity the poor biopic. Whether about an artist, sports hero, musician or president, it has to please fans of the subject while struggling against the constraints of the form. Tate Taylor’s new film “Get On Up,” about the life of Soul Brother #1, James Brown, uses a variety of techniques, including a non-linear narrative and extensive breaking of the fourth wall, to try and break the mold, but it just can’t seem to get up offa that thang (“thang” in this case being a pretty standard VH1-style story).
The film opens somewhat inexplicably in 1988, as a shotgun-wielding tracksuit-wearing hopped-up-on-drugs JB bullies a woman who’s just exited the john. Flashbacks to his Georgia childhood offer some context for the troubles with women he would encounter later on, but aside from striking his wife once off-screen, they’re glossed over in favor of the music.
James Brown was a genius--”You can bet your bottom dollar every record you got has a piece of me in it,” he tells the camera at one point. He was also a taskmaster who knew just who the people were coming to see, and consequently who should run the business of being James Brown. He fined his musicians for missing cues onstage, and in March 1970, let nearly his entire group go over a pay dispute. Taylor is right to have his star Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in “42”) address the camera multiple times throughout the movie. Brown knew who was in charge, and he’s gonna remind you in this movie. Often.
Boseman has Brown’s speech cadence down, and he has the moves, too. When he’s onscreen, it’s electric to watch him perform. He dances with legs that seem to effortlessly move from having the fluidity of wet spaghetti to solid as a Georgia pine as he sinks into the splits following “I Got You.” But I didn’t recall seeing him sweat much onscreen, cold or otherwise. There are photos of Brown from the era, just dripping with perspiration. I wanted that same deep level of heavy funkiness to all of “Get On Up.” But when the music’s not playing, I wasn’t feeling it.
By the end of the movie, even Brown’s longtime friend and musical collaborator, Bobby Byrd, has left him, and the Godfather of Soul is alone. “James Brown don’t need no one,” Boseman says at one point. In the end, he was right.