Get On Up, the all-singing, all-dancing, only-a-little-bit-(fist)-swinging James Brown biopic, has been criticised for soft-pedalling the singer’s violence and drug use. I went curious, as ready as anyone to call it out for misogynistic apologetics. The biggest missing piece, however, is not an account of Brown’s misdeeds but something fundamental: a story. Get On Up loops woozily from ’88 to ’39 to ’68 to ’62 to… you get the idea. Sometimes the jumps in time work nicely but for the most part it is an unsuccessful attempt to paper over the fact the film doesn’t know what it’s about.
A story has to be about something. The protagonist has to start somewhere and end somewhere else. Events are just anecdotes if there is no narrative thread tying them together. Director Tate Taylor appears to have a vague idea of this requirement but gives up in the face of the material. He can’t choose a through-line. Is this a film about Brown’s catastrophic childhood and its repercussions on his adult life? Is it about the uneasy symbiosis between black artist and white power structure? Or the tension between Brown the dictatorial musical genius and his gifted-but-not-genius best friend? Get On Up flirts with these possibilities but never settles down. The final rapprochement between Brown and best friend Billy Byrd is touching but arbitrary. It is a convenient stopping point but doesn’t feel like a conclusion.
Taylor apparently succumbed to the temptation to throw a lot of interesting stuff on the screen and hope no one would notice there was no idea tying it all together. In a deeper sense, the film’s lack of narrative arc is an honest, albeit unwitting, reflection of James Brown’s life. His circumstances changed but the man – the damaged, gifted survivor – didn’t change. Like many (most?) people he failed to transcend his experiences.
He was a broke-ass abandoned kid turned teenage jailbird who became the Godfather of Soul – what do you mean ‘didn’t change’?
Real change is internal. People, Americans in particular, are distracted by shiny things. If a man starts poor and ends rich they think that means he’s changed.
Ain’t necessarily so. Survival skills are rarely pretty. James Brown fought through a life that would crush most people. That is one achievement. Transcending that suffering to become an evolved, compassionate human being is a separate task altogether. One Brown didn’t manage.
‘Cause he was a drug-puffing, wife-beating asshole.
He was those things, sometimes. But they were symptoms of his failure to change, not the failure itself.
Why couldn’t such a smart, talented man get his shit together?
Probably because he was too busy reinventing popular music. Change, progress of any sort, requires effort. Just watching Get On Up left me drained. The sheer psychic and physical energy James Brown expended is staggering. He lights the screen like a stick of dynamite blowing up over and over. Why are we surprised by the ashes?
Creative work is hard. The brain burns more energy, by weight, than any other part of the body. Coming up with a brand new bag day in, day out, demands tremendous energy. And when he wasn’t working out the music in his head, in the studio, or in rehearsals James Brown was giving his heart and soul on-stage. I saw him perform just two years before he died: a red-satin-suited ball of kinetic energy. Imagine doing that, day after day, for decades. Add the stress of the music industry, racism, travel, family drama, and a brutal childhood. Being James Brown took a lot of energy. National grid levels of energy.
He was the hardest working man in show business. Yet we wonder why he wasn’t a better human being. Would you be, in his shoes? Ferocious will and talent raised him above his ugly past, but rising is not the same as making peace with. Rising is a bridge that lifts you out of the awfulness as long as you stay on the planks. Coming to terms is more like learning to swim. You have to immerse yourself and find a way to be in that cold current without getting dragged under.
It’s no coincidence that a lot of legendary performers are fucked-up human beings. Stardom requires brute effort; high physical and emotional pain tolerance. Damaged children are primed to perform. They crave love and attention. They are used to suffering for no reward; suffering for money, fame, and approval is a hot deal by comparison. Conveniently, for the industries that make and break them, their Pavlovian response to rejection is to try harder. The ones with talent, to say nothing of genius, can achieve astonishing things. James Brown’s music is so incandescent that even a facsimile JB (superbly played by Chadwick Boseman) in a half-baked film is enough to make my nerves fizz. The undeniable power and glory of Brown’s art is for us, though, the audience. He poured everything out. All that was left to fill his emptiness was the obvious, useless stuff: drugs, sex, guns, and drama.
“I think he had a profound sense of abandonment, and there was a part of [Brown] that was extremely courageous, that little kid being able to survive in the wilderness,” Chadwick Boseman told the New York Times. “There’s a man inside that little boy, but there’s also a little boy inside the man. Extremes are sort of married to each other and magnetized. So someone may exert an abnormal amount of courage but it can come out of a vacuum of fear.”
Did James Brown do some terrible things? Yes.
Should we be surprised? No.
Would we have done better or different? Maybe. But only maybe.