A wonderful video shows James Brown performing on “Playboy After Dark” in the late 1960s. He’s apparently the only African-American in the room – most of the other people are white models in lingerie – and he’s fascinating, eyes closed and hips swiveling as he lays down his message of racial unity. By the end, even some of the bouffant-wearing white girls chant the chorus: “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
That was James Brown: a singer who transcended color and became a universal soul music icon. Or, rather, that was one James Brown. He was also a talented balladeer, a convicted robber, a gospel singer, a wife abuser, a co-inventor of funk, a bandleader who picked his singers’ costumes and insisted on visual and aural unity, a drug user, a versatile writer-producer, a man who wed three times and acknowledged nine children in and out of those marriages, and a collector of nicknames: Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother No. 1, The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.
The impressionistic and deeply satisfying “Get On Up” shows us most of these James Browns, at least briefly. It doesn’t excuse the JB who made a mess of parts of his life, but it explains why he did.
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American director Tate Taylor, working from a script by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, leaps around in time from Brown’s terrible childhood in Augusta, Ga., to a post-prison comeback in 1994. (Interestingly, all three men and most of the producers are white.)
When police chase a drugged Brown in 1988, eventually shooting at his truck as he flees, the childhood version of the character steps out of the truck cab to face the cops. The message couldn’t be clearer: This broken boy, beaten by his father and abandoned by his mother, remained inside the adult. The powerless boy who could control nothing in childhood spent his career exerting power and demanding control.
Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42,” does more than give an extraordinary performance as Brown from 16 through 61. He gets the physical mannerisms, from Brown’s gravelly speaking voice to his bounce-on-the-heels walk. He duplicates whirling stage moves and (almost) re-enacts the famous splits, lip-synching to Brown’s original vocals.
More to the point, he shows the wounded interior beneath the cocky exterior. His JB can be grateful for friendship while exploiting it, or recognize that criticism may be just while refusing to hear it. (And firing people who give it.)
The story has few women in it. Taylor has cast his leads from “The Help,” Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as Brown’s real and surrogate mothers, a woman who left after one beating too many and a brothel-keeper who took James in after his dad entered the Army.
But to quote a JB song, this is a man’s world. Though we meet two wives, they scarcely matter to the tale. He relates to his band, a fond but skeptical Jewish manager (Dan Aykroyd) who finally convinces Brown not to call him “white devil,” and especially Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), his longtime confidant, piano player and occasional metaphoric punching bag.
The movie naturally combines events and glosses over others; I didn’t need to see Brown philander again and again or decline into an old age that left him scarcely comprehensible before his death in 2006.
I did wonder why “Living in America,” the “Rocky IV” theme that won him a 1986 Grammy, didn’t get played.
The most important thing, though, is that we come away feeling we know him. He died on Christmas Day eight years ago, and people listening to samples of his music in rap and hip-hop may have no idea why he mattered. Now they’ll see.