Even by the standards of early rock ‘n’ roll songs, the 1956 “Please, Please, Please” is primitive, in fact primal. It’s the “Hare Krishna” of sexual desperation: one word is repeated a couple dozen times in a lover’s mantra, prayer or threat, as crooned by the vocal group, The Famous Flames, and howled by their lead singer. In the biopic Get On Up, a record-label executive listens to the number and dismisses it. Where are the verse and chorus, where’s the play of words? And Brown’s manager keeps repeating, “It’s not the song.” Exactly right. It’s the singer — the pleader, the testifier — James Brown.
The singer and the showmanship. On stage more than on records, Brown turned “Please, Please, Please” into fervent melodrama with a comic undercoating. The first record and first R&B hit for Brown and the Flames, the song always came at their end of their set, with Brown intoning the dirge as the house-band saxes followed him in a slow, keening descent. This went on for a few thrilling minutes. Then, totally spent by his exertions, and crushed by the perfidy of womankind, Brown collapsed onstage, was lifted to his feet by attendants and, with the robe of a defeated boxer draped over his shoulders, began to drag himself toward the wings — until the cries of the audience magically revived him. Like Lazarus or the Frankenstein monster, he summoned the will and strength to sing one more chorus. Now that’s entertainment.
Over the decades, Hollywood has filmed the life stories and music of seminal artists from the first Age of Rock: The Buddy Holly Story,La Bamba (Ritchie Valens), Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis) andRay (Ray Charles), plus docu-features on Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Now, nearly eight years after Brown’s death, at 73 on Christmas Day 2006, comes Get On Up. It may be the finest, most complex of the bunch — the story of a difficult man who created the funk sound, endlessly sampled by rock stars and rappers. Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, directed by Tate Taylor and boasting an indelible lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up is the goods.
Why did it take so long for the movies to get around to Brown? In part because he was black; Ray Charles was the only early rock ‘n’ roll great to attain biopic glory, and he projected a far less confrontational personality. Brown was the very blackest — the most satanic and majestic — of Afro-American performers. In his first decade as a performer, Brown wowed the “chitlin’ circuit,” but he had no mainstream Billboard hits until “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in 1965, and only seven other top-10 singles (including “I Feel Good,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat” and “Living in America”) over the next 33 years of his recording career. With a scalding tenor that could melt vinyl, Brown was too raw to enthrall the sorts of white kids who grow up to run movie studios and greenlight projects about the cultural heroes of their childhoods. Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment was the guy who said yes.
Brown’s boyhood, on the evidence of Get On Up, was a nightmare. Born in a Georgia sharecropper’s shack in 1933, he is deserted by his mother (Viola Davis) and handed over to a relative (Octavia Spencer) for rearing. The fondest mementos of his youth are the shoes he takes off a lynched man’s feet. In prison for stealing a suit, he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, from True Blood), lead singer of the Gospel Starlighters, who brings James into his home and into the quintet, soon to be known as The Famous Flames. James screws Bobby’s sister and takes over the group: his need for control is as consuming as his talent.
A meeting with another Georgia raver, Little Richard (a great turn by former Disney Channel imp Brandon Smith), five months older than James and already a local star, persuades him to make a demo record. This brings the group to the attention of Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd, who shared the screen with the real Brown a million years ago in The Blues Brothers), and to a contract with Federal Records. When the “Please, Please, Please” single is issued, Byrd and his mates are shocked to see the credit: JAMES BROWN With The Famous Flames. He’s the boss. And as Brown’s popularity grows, he successfully tangles with the Federal executives to release a “live” album and with concert promoters to reduce their share of the take. This wild man is also an astute businessman — and a canny politician, able to juggle the colliding agendas of Lyndon Johnson and the Black Panthers (not a vocal group, although the Panthers were vocal).
Instead of doggedly retracing every step to stardom, as most musical biographers do, the Butterworth brothers and Taylor hopscotch across Brown’s life, sampling its highlights and pitfalls, as rapsters borrowed snippets of his music. Each segment, jumbled in chronology, announces its theme or mood by being labeled with one of the nicknames Brown was given or chose for himself: Little Junior (in Spencer’s household), Mr. Dynamite, The Godfather of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Superbad, etc. Occasionally, Boseman-Brown serves as narrator, stepping from one scene and one period into another. It’s as if, from the beyond, the showman is still in charge.
Yet Get On Up manages to be an inside-outside view of Brown. He accomplishes his musical innovations — turning every brass and woodwind instrument in his band into a form of percussion — by treating his sidemen as house slaves. Although Byrd, saxophonist Maceo Parker (an excellent Craig Robinson) and others have known the singer for years, they must address him as “Mr. Brown.” When it turns out he’s not as sharp a business mind as he thought, he doesn’t pay them and doesn’t explain why. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business can be a terrifying employer, imposing his will on subordinates and the women he sometimes abuses.
In short, this soul man/tycoon is Ray Charles Foster Kane. Byrd fills the same role as Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland did in Citizen Kane: the longtime friend, employee, victim and conscience of a self-styled great man. And Bart is the kindly Jewish advisor, like Everett Sloane’s Mr. Bernstein in Kane, in whose presence the driven protagonist can relax into self-deprecation. Railing about his troubles on a plane ride with Bart, James suddenly smiles and says, “Here I am, just a sorry black man whinin’ on my private jet.” Not until near the end of Get On Up, after he’s burned bridges with his mother — a scene in which Davis reveals her characters’ fallen pride and lasting scars — and his bandmates, do we learn the one person whose forgiveness Brown needs. Not that he’d ever beg for it.
Given that Taylor directed The Help and Boseman played Jackie Robinson in 42, you might expect a touchup of the Brown portrait, perhaps a whitewash. Not so. Get On Up is a big step up from the homely hominy homilies of Taylor’s first film. He draws the main characters in rich contours, without constantly editorializing about racial prejudice, as in The Help. He doesn’t have to; it’s redolent in so many scenes, notably an early-’40s “Battle Royale” in which 10 black boys, including the young James (played by the twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott), are blindfolded and must box with one arm until only one is standing — all for the amusement of the white gentry and the embarrassment of the black musicians in attendance.
As Jackie Robinson, Boseman was heroic and stoic; he spoke softly and carried a big metaphorical bat. Robinson was the herald of racial change in major-league baseball but not its agent; that was Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, who promoted Robinson into the bigs and hoped the young UCLA graduate could handle the challenge. In Get On Up, Bart is not Rickey; James Brown forged his career success and his musical legacy out of pain, guts and prison, with no special help from whites. He said it loud: he’s black and he’s proud.
Playing Brown from the age of 16 to 60, Boseman carries and liftsGet On Up to its most impressive heights. He doesn’t sing the songs (the original recordings got a cogent remix from executive producer Mick Jagger) but he talks the raspy talk in inflections that become habitation. Boseman also mastered the on-stage strutting and dance moves that inspired Jagger, Michael Jackson and plenty others; he’s a wondrous dervish — fully possessed in both sense of the word. Even in repose, his Brown radiates drive, sex, menace and spirit. He’s the boss of Get On Up, not by Brownian manipulation but by audience acclamation.
As much as I hate using the O word seven months before the Academy Awards, I’m obliged to predict an aisle seat for Boseman on Oscar night. In 2007, Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for his subtle performance as Ray Charles. Boseman exceeds that solid standard. Incarnating James Brown in all his ornery uniqueness, he deserves a Pulitzer, a Nobel and instant election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.