Well into the storyline of “Get On Up,” Imagine Entertainment’s latest Hollywood biopic, James Brown in 1968 ponders the dilemma of either meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, or with Black nationalist H. Rap Brown in New York City. Such attention to Brown’s social influence during the turbulent decade is part of the appeal of director Tate Taylor’s film. It is an engrossing, surprising and thoroughly rewarding film for fans of “The Godfather of Soul.” By the way, L.B.J. won out.
Chadwick Boseman, fresh off his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in “42,” captured the essence of the late pop music icon. He takes the audience from humble beginnings of abject poverty in Augusta, Ga., to the footlights of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY, on to Dick Clark’s TAMI (The American Music International Show) at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1964, and makes stops in Hollywood with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and eventually performances on every continent during a worldwide, whirlwind 50 years of song and dance. Boseman practiced for months the voice and dance moves of Brown to present a memorable performance.
Taylor and Boseman had established a confident working relationship with the success of “42,” and are joined by Dan Aykroyd, who was a fan of Brown long before the two would work together in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” movie. This time, the funnyman portrayed Ben “Pop” Bart, Brown’s faithful manager and friend; the part occasionally reminded the audience of Aykroyd’s slick, fast-talking “Irwin Mainway” character from “Saturday Night Live” by way of comic relief.
The Jewish businessman and the strongly independent Black man found they shared a common love for soul music and, in some ways, their relationship mirrored the social dynamic that Brown had with White audiences all over the world. Brown may have been the most familiar introduction for Whites to Black America because of his ability to “cross over” to another audience. “Remember James, you handle the ‘show,’ and I’ll handle the ‘business,’” Bart frequently said to his friend.
The film is a terrific combination of Hollywood theatrics and sober reminders of the lives of Black persons hailing from the Deep South during the 1930s and 40s. Brown’s childhood was not terribly different from that of any Black person born into poverty in the Jim Crow south who yearned to “be somebody” amidst the constant challenges of privation and subjugation.
Early on Brown was dropped off by his abusive father to live with a paternal niece, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, who operated a jukejoint/whorehouse that catered to wartime menfolk in need of a “good drink and a pretty girl.” Brown ventured one day into a nearby Pentecostal or “holiness” church and witnessed the intoxicating power Gospel music had on Black people. He was hooked from the start.
The costumes—from the filthy rags of his boyhood to shimmering gold lame in adulthood—demonstrated great accuracy by the producers, and the personal asides by Boseman toward the viewing audience revealed the intense desire Brown had for social mobility, music innovation and fame. He also wanted to be in charge. Consequently, nobody made a move without “Mr Brown’s” approval, and that personality trait was demonstrated in a rehearsal scene, when boyhood friend and collaborator Bobby Byrd, portrayed by Nelsan Ellis, was asked by Brown what he thought of the new “one-and-three” beat? He was promptly fined $20 for violating one of singer’s three cardinal rules: “never be late, never miss a beat … and never hold us up.”
In fact, Byrd had begun to carve his own stage identity by co-writing and performing on 1971’s “Sex Machine Part 1” from which the movie title is taken; you can hear him in the refrain: “Get On Up.” They performed it together in Paris, France where the two finally departed ways when Brown refused to relinquish “one inch” of the stage to anyone.
Viola Davis portrayed Brown’s mother, far too immature to have a child, who left him early on to find a better life in the north. In a poignant scene, Brown had just completed an engagement at the Apollo Theater when Byrd whispered in his ear that there was a woman present “who says she’s your mother.” It was her; a mother again after “rippin’ and runnin’” for 20 years. Brown asked her: “What are you doing here?” She put the free champagne down long enough to say she wanted to see him and to explain why she left him alone with an abusive father. “I was just too young to raise a child,” she confided. Brown slipped her $100 and dispatched her without a kiss, handshake or even a smile. The scene revealed that Brown rejected any and all introspection into his personal life.
Also in 1968, Brown recruited a group of grade school kids from South Los Angeles to sing background on one of the most politically charged songs of all time, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” released in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “White-themed” pop radio stations nationwide boycotted that tune which, perhaps, made it even more enthralling for young Black boys and girls.
By 1988, Brown was still in high demand, having survived the popularity of Disco, Punk and Rap. His personal demons, however, had begun to take their toll. With an affinity for marijuana joints laced with PCP, Brown one afternoon took his new Ford F-150 pickup on a wild ride from South Carolina to the Georgia line and ended up jailed for failure to yield, reckless endangerment, DUI, carrying a loaded weapon across state lines and more. Despite such personal failings, Brown was bigger than Jolson, “badder” than Elvis and Michael … and definitely better than Bieber.
If you adored James Brown as much as some of the performers and producers did (including Mick Jagger), reminisce a little with “Get On Up.”