Director Tate Taylor’s new biopic, “Get on Up,” displays James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) as fans fondly remember — dancing, dynamic and dripping sweat. It also weaves a narrative about the side of Brown which few understood, depicting glimpses from his life that range from 1939 as a dirt-poor child in rural Georgia to 1993 as a living legend. The film hinges on presenting, without interpreting, Brown’s irreconcilable dichotomies, which Boseman treats with sensitivity and depth. Boseman powerfully evokes Brown’s stamina and starpower, landing splits with seeming ease. He rasps, wails and croons throughout the film’s concert scenes, but Boseman’s ending stuns with a previously unreleased version of “Try Me.”
Bouncing around Brown’s timeline, “Get on Up” revels in the incomplete and unknowable. Characters’ decisions often dangle one cut-scene away from explanation. Brown’s mom, Susie (Viola Davis), flees for New York, leaving her young son in the care of his abusive father (Lennie James), who months later hands Brown off to a brothel madam named Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). A flashback shows Brown a few years after being abandoned, spotting his mother working as a prostitute; she summarily ignores him and denies to her date that she is Brown’s mother. When Susie resurfaces years later after one of her son’s sold-out shows, Brown asks for explanations but is met with her tears and profound inability to articulate.
“Get on Up” handles Brown’s deeds with the same unattached and third-party passivity it employs to display the other characters’ inner-workings. One scene shows Brown and his second wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott), handing out $5 bills and candy apples to the neighborhood children during the Christmas season. A father leers at DeeDee, who fills out a short, low-cut Mrs. Claus costume admirably but not provocatively, and Brown berates the man for stealing glances at his wife. After Brown’s charitable demeanor is depleted and DeeDee casually asks if her husband wants dinner, he brutally assaults and condemns her for wearing such revealing clothing. The scene ends with DeeDee slumped and crumpled against her dining room wall.
While the audience watches repetitive disturbing scenes of domestic abuse and misogynist rhetoric, no characters acknowledge these occurrences as problematic. This is the tightrope walk that “Get on Up” perfects, where characters’ incongruities are expressed only through their actions. There is no self-reflection. Boseman even breaks the fourth wall throughout the film, but these brief monologues illuminate his actions only by highlighting what he doesn’t say. Brown never reflects and only moves forward, as he states matter-of-factly in one of these short scenes, because going backward is death and moving forward is continuous growth or life.
Though discontinuity abounds in the film’s timeline and characters, allowing viewers a comfortable distance from these famous faces, “Get on Up” provides the audience with something more ethereal to grasp. Throughout the film, Taylor juxtaposes religious “spirit” and secular “funk,” both innate and unstoppable, as elemental forces that guide the Godfather of Soul’s rise from statistic to superstar.
“You ain’t hungry, that’s just the spirit inside you tickling your belly,” Susie tries to convince her young son, before the pressures of poverty become too much for her. Many remark to Brown when he is a child that he has the “spirit” — an indestructible yearning that will guide him to success. As an adult and wildly famous performing artist, Brown refers to the “funk,” which similarly can’t stop or be stopped, as a guiding light. The funk is never wrong and never out of time.
Showing scenes of a star’s transformation— from jailbird to songbird, abandoned to adored, “Get on Up” examines many facets of a life of contradictions. Boseman’s performance in the film is nuanced and complex without being disrespectful. The unexplained and the under-explained are disregarded by the end of the film, with the understanding that one can never know another person — especially a shrouded personality like Brown — fully enough. Taylor honors a man’s genius, doggedness and star power without forgetting the flaws, moods and discrepancies that establish humanity.
“Get on Up” opens Friday at Landmark Shattuck Cinema.
Contact Cara Cerino at [email protected].