My favorite scene in “Get on Up” takes place in 1955. James Brown and Little Richard have found each other in Georgia’s night life and are talking it over outside the burger joint where Richard Penniman (Little Richard’s real name) still works, complete with hair net, for his daily bread.
Later, Brown would tell journalists, “He discovered me, and I discovered him.” A great moment, surely, in American popular music and played down a wee bit in the Brown biopic “Get on Up.”
But you’ve got to love Brandon Smith as an impressed and hopelessly flamboyant Little Richard, telling an enthralled and delighted James Brown that even if Brown has to steal the requisite 100 bucks to afford it, he’s got to go to a recording studio and make an acetate.
As for Richard, he knows that the way to make it out of Georgia is to get airplay for his records outside the 60 mile radius of the Macon radio station that is playing his music continuously. Richard has plans.
“I’m going to be bigger than Cleopatra,” he tells Brown, one of the best lines in the movie.
I could have watched Brown and Richard scenes all through the
movie. I’d love to know what they had to say to each other once they’d both made it. Richard, bless him, is still with us and could have been a source.
There are many great things in “Get on Up,” the biopic about James Brown, the soul music and entrepreneurial wizard who got America on the good foot and influenced hugely some of the greatest performers in the history of popular music, including Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger, the latter of whom served as co-producer of the movie with mogul Brian Grazer.
It’s a big, sprawling mess of a movie that tells its story in fits and starts and fragments that probably could have been arranged in four or five different ways from the one we’re watching – and a couple of which might have been improvements.
No matter. It’s about James Brown. And when Jagger is one of the film’s producers, you know the music is going to – as Elvis used to put it in another context – take care of business. And the business here is the glory of James Brown the performer – that pleading, wildly percussive music and the extraordinary dance moves that, in his prime, seemed to come from another planet, whose only other inhabitant was the great ’50s performing genius Jackie Wilson.
And that is indeed the glory of “Get on Up” – its star Chadwick Boseman.
You are not going to read a fraction as much about Boseman in America’s hype channels as you did about Jamie Foxx when he starred in “Ray” and won an Oscar, or Joaquin Phoenix when he played Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” and was Oscar-nominated, or Sissy Spacek when she played Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and won an Oscar.
There are two reasons for that: One is that the music here is all Brown, not an actor simulating him. It’s been given a 21st century remix, but it’s pure James Brown. There was no way that co-producer Jagger – a man who understands Brown’s charisma right down to his own nimble and apparently ageless toes – would allow any actor to simulate those wild vocal explosions and screams.
And that’s where Boseman is little short of spectacular: He’s not doing the voice, but he’s mimicking it perfectly and doing the MOVES. Just about all of them. And when you hear his speaking voice throughout the film, his mimicry of James Brown is perfect.
That’s the trick with these roles. An actor has to replicate perfectly the sound of speaking voices which millions can still hear in their mind’s ear. And he also has to convey the comedy and drama of a life which the American majority considers a good deal larger than life.
And Boseman – whose name and reputation is a fraction of Foxx’s when he made “Ray” – is a terrific young actor who has now played two landmark figures in 20th-century black American history: Jackie Robinson in “42” and now James Brown, an infinitely tougher assignment.
And he is utterly amazing as James Brown.
Dan Aykroyd – whom Brown used to credit, along with John Belushi, with getting him to get his act together by putting him in their “Blues Brothers” movie – plays Brown’s lovingly paternal manager. Viola Davis is extremely moving as the mother who abandoned him early in life. Nelsan Ellis plays Brown’s lifelong, much-abused friend and musical partner Bobby Byrd.
A good deal of airbrushing has been done in this biopic to make James Brown more acceptable to 21st century eavesdroppers. His spousal abuse is indicated by one perfunctory scene where it happens largely off-camera. You see him volunteer to Lyndon B. Johnson to entertain troops in Vietnam (and almost get shot out of the sky when he does), but there’s almost no indication of his support for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Brown’s famous paranoia is indicated on the fly, almost innocently.
Some things just look different a few decades later, you know? Hollywood has traditional ultra-blurry ways of dealing with such stuff.
And when Brown takes police on a wild chase through Georgia back roads as he did late in life, it makes for a wild, well-directed action scene for the film, but it treats it as a set piece with no explanation and no follow-up whatsoever.
There’s an awful lot about James Brown this movie just isn’t interested in.
It cares about the emotional life of an abandoned child who created himself as a man almost alone. It’s directed by Tate Taylor whose movie “The Help” paid groundbreaking attention to a giant and previously ignored American subject – the lives of black domestic “help” in upscale white households.
It’s the music this overlong film is about which is more than a good enough reason to see it, especially when its lead performer is as stupendous as this one, despite his still-obscure name. Let’s hope that changes quickly.