Mick Jagger told The Telegraph this week that producing Get On Up, the James Brown biopic, was a challenge because Brown and his heirs had certain ideas about the film. Brown, prior to his death in 2006, didn’t want “too much negativity.” As a result, the tale that spans his early childhood to the early 1990s ultimately shows off Brown’s best qualities and only hints at his worst.
This reluctance to delve into the negative leaves some glaring holes in the Get On Up final cut. Despite being an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment, some of the most notorious elements of Brown’s life are relegated to mere footnotes. Audiences are shown a brief scene where he is implied to be violent against his wife, but makes no mention of domestic violence charges brought against the singer in 2004. His band quits en masse over payment issues, but the dialogue makes only passing reference to tax troubles. There are short, almost afterthought, scenes of substance use and run-ins with police. In each case, moviegoers are left to fill in the blanks with their worst assumptions.
The film focuses instead on Brown’s extraordinary trajectory from the very bottom of society to a respectable home and eventual success – buoyed in no small part by the initial generosity of Bobby Byrd, whose family is shown taking in Brown in his early days. The future soul icon is in prison for stealing a man’s suit and needs an address to apply for parole. As an amazing accident of life, Byrd is a member of a gospel group, which Brown soon joins. The friendship and eventual fallout between Brown and Byrd in many ways anchors the film. The complex relationship with his mother, Viola Davis at her best, is explored in only a handful of scenes, but these feel like enough to make the strong point of abandonment and conflicted loyalty.
At its best, Get On Up is an exploration of extremes: the story of a man who came from extreme poverty, abuse, abandonment and racism to achieve legendary status and great wealth as an entertainer. Simultaneously, his personal life is implied to be unstable: his anger is quick to explode and his financial status is on tenuous ground.
Despite its shortcomings, Get On Up is a compelling account of a man whom the film calls the most-sampled entertainer of all time. Jagger even gets in a virtual “wink” at his own association with Brown by including an early scene when, in 1964, both Brown and The Rolling Stones are on the same bill. Brown’s manager, ably portrayed by Dan Akyroyd, has to break it to him that the Stones are getting the show’s closing spot. He appeases Brown with the sideways quip that no one will know who the Stones are a week from now.
Time said earlier this week Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Brown is Oscar-worthy; and of this there can be little disagreement. Boseman becomes Brown in the film, mimicking his iconic dance moves to perfection, and even pulling off his sometimes difficult to comprehend manner of speech.
Get On Up is in theaters now.