Get on Up: From Rhythm to Richness

by Armond White
James Brown biopic grasps American culture; but poverty-porn doc Rich Hill just condescends.

When James Brown’s epochal recording “Cold Sweat” fills a movie theater’s stereo system with rumbling thunder, brass sass, and emotional shock, it is the most ecstatic art experience you can have — and the movie that occasions it ain’t half bad, either. Get on Up, the crazily ambitious biopic about “The Godfather of Soul,” shows an understanding of Brown as a musical artist and a difficult man. It accepts the paradox and goes through paroxysms to make the audience accept it, too.

A listen to the landmark 1992 Startime CD, a three-disc career retrospective, is enough to convince anyone that Brown was the greatest pop musician of the second half of the 20th century, yet a 21st-century movie has to start from scratch and lay out Brown’s history — as a shrewd, cantankerous businessman; an underprivileged child from Augusta, Ga.; a taskmaster bandleader; an ex-con; a philandering husband; a survivor of Southern Jim Crow racism; an esthetic trailblazer, a social pioneer; and perhaps the key avatar of Black America’s raw, sensual, vulgar, African-derived, slave-influenced, yet fantastic sensibility.

All this comes through in a time-shifting narrative no less complicated than Faulkner or an Alain Resnais art movie, yet dared by director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. They cohere Brown’s personality contrasts through the counterpoint of grueling personal experience. It seems jumpy and fatuous at first — and the opening scene of an elderly Brown’s rifle-toting eccentricity is appallingly misjudged, mixing toilet humor and orneriness — but eventually the film parallels Brown’s own staccato, percussive orchestrations.

Taylor, who directed The Help (and so I expected the worst), grasps the enormity of his subject with both hands, telling an individual and a cultural history at once. This was a risky project during the Obama era, especially following what Harvey Weinstein named Hollywood’s “Obama Effect” (seen in patronizing films from The Butler to 12 Years a Slave that sought to rationalize black history as a long-gone prelude to triumph). Taylor’s The Help seemed part of that specious movement, but Get on Up has a more rigorous, inflected narrative — not as fine as Cadillac Records, but superior to Ray and more exuberant than both.

Brown’s triumph was his own — hard-won, idiosyncratic, and original. It came about through eras and events whose impact cannot be wished away by either a presidential election or a maudlin, placating story arc. Images of poverty-stricken young James stealing shoes off a lynching victim or being dragooned into a battle royale for the delectation of Ku Klux Klansmen, or of adult Brown hustling with his white record-label owner to subjugate his band members, are indelible and can’t be taken lightly. That battle-royale nightmare evokes Ralph Ellison’s still-essential Invisible Man and confirms Taylor and the Butterworths’ sophistication.

Get on Up has something no Resnais movie could ever boast about: Chadwick Boseman portrays Brown with extraordinary youthful force. The fast-garbled voice is pitched indecorously, to be heard above everyone else’s din; his uncouth, countrified alarm asserts itself the way black American music always has. Boseman, who played the patient, circumspect Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, flips the switch and does an even more remarkable feat: He’s earthy and intelligent. He gets Brown’s spastic-athletic leg-twitching choreography and he lip-syncs the great hits almost perfectly. But he’s most startling when, through Taylor’s conceit, he looks into the camera and addresses the audience. His stare has a bright-eyed audacity that recalls Prince’s similar Brechtian tricks in both Purple Rain and Sign O the Times. It’s an extraordinary embodiment of black showbiz evolution and asserts a cinematic legacy for Brown’s radical art.

Boseman’s immediacy matches Brown’s historic recordings and live performances, some reenacted here with such studied exuberance they partly recall the Negroid celebrations in faux-naïve Hollywood films (Green Pastures, Cabin in the Sky). It may not realistically simulate postwar R&B (although the plain-to-perm-to-Afro hairstyles do) but the film’s look has an affectionate intensity. The actors display a thrilling, close rapport — when Brown meets an unguarded Little Richard (Brandon Smith), who teaches him the concept of white record-company devils, and especially in Nelan Harris as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s onstage Hype Man, whose eyes show the nuances of patience, loyalty and sorrow.

Taylor’s rapport with women creates a wondrous range of temperaments: At first Viola Davis, as Brown’s mother, does her usual variations on misery, nearly sinking the film into condescension. But the anguished role gets worked out smartly, its mawkishness toughly contrasted by Octavia Spencer as a sexual businesswoman telling Brown his destiny. Brown’s seduction by two different women — slinky Yvonne Fair (Tika Sumpter) and voluptuous wife DeeDee (Jill Scott) — summarizes the erotic passages of Brown’s life in an amazing rhythmic montage, the paradigm for Tate’s juxtaposing narrative concept.

The rhythms of Get on Up vary due to the difficulty of the story’s personal and cultural insights. But the importance of rhythm is emphasized through Brown’s precise expressions: “Funk is in the bag, the bag is in the bass, the bass never changes,” “The groove is solid; it’s inside you,” and “If it sound good and it feel good then it’s musical. Now play it the way I told you!”

These explanations cannot be underestimated. They describe the avant-garde genius of songs like “Cold Sweat,” Brown’s superb blues, and so many others. The percussive power and originality of Brown’s songs steamroll through a complex story and complicated issues like no film since Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Every point on art, race — even Brown’s political gestures, from White House visits to the recording of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” — is shown with clarity and impact. Envious Spike Lee (who was originally slated to direct the film) will never admit how good this is. But it’s unlikely that a livelier American movie will be made this year.

***

Although Get on Up is unsubtle and has an artificial look, its understanding of Brown’s bootstrap struggle has more social relevance and political realism than the new poverty-porn flick, Rich Hill. This documentary look at poor and deprived white teens in Missouri is way too estheticized, with music and images designed to make poetry out of misery. It’s another film where the makers, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, exploit suffering from behind an emotionally distant digital camera.

Hank Williams songs are prominent, as if hillbilly depression still rules in an America that has stopped working for so many people — just a small portion of freedom in a country whose pop culture (symbolized by one youth’s Family Guy T-shirt) cynically mocks them. Various kinds of mental disturbance (among parents and kids) combine with physical abuse and pathetic hope. The filmmakers’ concept means more to them than these people whose lives they invade. It’s a variation on the obscene ’90s movies Hoop Dreams, Gummo, Kids, and Julian Donkey Boy, but it shows no awareness of David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), a beautiful and moving fiction about the same subject.

Pretending to show income inequality, Rich Hill (irony anyone?) is about the pure disadvantages that nobody, especially filmmakers, will do anything about. This is the kind of movie that makes you angry at everything from indie film condescension and festival programmers to critics/shills and distributors, all protecting their own system of privileges.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.