Regardless of your music preferences, there can be no dispute James Brown traveled a difficult road to achieve success.
His life is the subject of this biopic depicting his troubled, early childhood in a rural cabin, where he was underfed by an impoverished mother and abused by his alcoholic father (played by Viola Davis and Lennie James, respectively). In 1941, at about 9 years of age, Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) was sent to live with his more prosperous paternal aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), proprietor of a whorehouse catering to lonely American soldiers. After looking the unimpressive lad up and down, Honey remarks, “Well I guess everybody got to be somewhere.” Here at least, Brown was regularly fed and able to attend church, where he fell in love with vibrant gospel music.
Moving back and forth in time to relate the experiences of the young Brown to the behavior of the grown man (persuasively portrayed by Chadwick Boseman), the film conveys a convincing explanation of why Brown became an ace performer and petty tyrant.
Music agent Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is the aging Jew who ushers in Brown’s early success, but it is Brown, using only his seventh grade education and keen mind for business, who creates a method to circumvent entrenched concert promoters enriching themselves at the artist’s expense. During Bart’s lifetime the despotic fines Brown levelled against band members for minor infractions, along with his tirades, remained in check. Following Bart’s death we see Brown’s paranoia emerge in the form of cruelty.
Highlighting the musical genius that allowed Brown to be cutting edge, the film notes the manner in which Brown wielded his vision as a weapon to humiliate his own musicians, costing him many longtime relationships. Especially heartbreaking is the singer’s inability to empathize destroying his association with Bobby Byrd (sympathetically embodied by Nelsan Ellis), his one true friend.
Brown’s infamous bouts of spousal abuse are only touched upon here, but Boseman incorporates the intelligence, the underlying anger and the arrogance informing Brown’s actions and music — every move the singer makes, every note he sings or screams. The film also highlights Brown’s remarkable ability to connect with friend or foe, showing us how Brown prevented police from beating members of his amped-up, largely black audience following Martin Luther King’s assassination and simultaneously persuading his ticket buyers that they owed Brown the respect of behaving well.
Despite his personal failings I came away from “Get On Up” respecting Brown’s vision of the big picture. While the musical numbers featuring the real voice of James Brown are enlivening, the film would do well to caption his lyrics, which always were indiscernible. Actually, nevermind, there’s so much to see and hear, the actual words may be unimportant.