"Get On Up": The Flaws & Genius of James Brown

A review of the new James Brown biopic, which opens today, looks at the good and the bad in the Godfather of Soul.
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Chadwick Boseman Photo

Chadwick Boseman takes the mic as James Brown in the biopic "Get On Up." (Photo: ©Universal Pictures/Photofest)

Capturing a life as long and legendary as James Brown’s in a two-hour film is tough. Over the course of his 73 colorful years, Brown transformed music as the "hardest working man in show business." He brought to life all the possibilities of live performance and inspired other music legends, like Mick Jagger, who had an early encounter with Brown when his budding band the Rolling Stones were top-billed over Brown's act on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964. Although Brown was incensed, he easily upstaged the Stones and made a fan out of Jagger. 

Fifty years later, it is Jagger who is bringing Brown's life and music to the big screen as the producer of the biopic Get On Up. The film, which took eight years to get off the ground, is an ode and ‘thank you’ to Brown for his musical genius, while attempting to reconcile his glaring flaws.

Get On Up begins with an ending. An aged and drug-addled star is upset because someone used his private bathroom and brandishes a shotgun at a room full of strangers in search of the perpetrator. This was one of two arrests in 1988 for the then-55-year-old soul musician: While his music career would remain intact, his personal life until his death would be shrouded in controversy and incidents related to his increased use of PCP. 

Casting such a negative light on the beginning of an otherwise hopeful and idyllic picture of Brown’s life is strange but fitting for such a jaggedly structured film. Jumping around his ages and troubles, Get On Up is tethered by cliche reflections of how hard Brown worked to reach and keep his star status, as well as transcendent in Chadwick Boseman's excellent embodiment of his complex character. (Boseman also delivered a strong biopic performance as Jackie Robinson in 42 last year.) 

The jumpy narrative gives us glimpses of the defining moments that shaped Brown both personally and professionally. As a child, he watched his father physically and emotionally abuse his mother before she abandoned the household for good. Later as an established star, he has a near-death experience when his plane almost gets shot down on his way to perform for the troops in Vietnam. Womanizing aside, there are snapshots of his egoism ruining friendships and tearing apart bands. As his fame grows, we see him become a more absent father and husband to his first wife Velma Warren, whom he leaves for a fan, Deidre “DeeDee” Jenkins, played by Jill Scott. In one scene when DeeDee is ogled by a young fan's father, we see Brown's jealousy quickly transform into violence with him punching her in the face.

Throughout the film, Boseman as Brown breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera to reflect on his choices and emotional responses to what was occurring in his life. After hitting DeeDee, Brown struggles to make eye contact with his audience for the first and only time.

Scott revealed the difficulties filming these scenes, noting Brown was not only a complex character, but also that no one wanted to stir up ill will or toxic memories of the singer, especially when his family agreed to collaborate on the project.

Yet, that moment of spousal abuse was not Brown’s last. After DeeDee, he married Adrienne Rodriguez although she is noticeably absent from the film. Their marriage in particular was marked by his heavy use of PCP and multiple arrests for weapons and domestic violence, including one in 2004 when he was 70 years old, just two years before his death. 

Jumping around Brown’s timeline as the film does seems to passively blame the uncontrollable aspects of his life on the way he develops emotionally. Maybe witnessing his father’s abuse of his mother and her continued desire to be with him intimately, as shown in a scene that showed a passionate embrace after one such violent outburst, affected his perception of romantic relationships. Maybe his mother’s abandonment and later return at the height of success caused him to never fully trust or respect women. Maybe the death of his eldest son Teddy in 1973 had led to his abuse of drugs, an assumption indicated through the flashing back to how the absentee father received the news as he smokes a PCP-laced joint.

Get On Up provides more questions than solid answers, but that's to be expected in a posthumous tribute. Yet, the refusal to fully engage with the reality of Brown’s actions shows our most common way of negotiating the awful parts of a person we want so desperately to be a hero. Sometimes, we’re willing to rearrange history in order to do so.