Does “Get On Up” Examine the Complexity of Brown’s Music and How It Was Written?
Get On Up (2014) exhausts most of its focus on what a character James Brown was. In terms of personality or presence, there’s nobody quite like James Brown, and the film’s structure is angled toward making that point. It wants you to know what a wild guy he was, and Chadwick Boseman’s incredible performance as Brown doesn’t leave anything to be desired in that regard.
Get On Up also presents James Brown as a self-absorbed artist who saw himself as one of the most important musicians who ever lived - and he was - but what Tate Taylor’s film fails to do is truly examine why. It shows his rise to the top without really talking about how it happened, aside from Brown’s determination and hard work. As Slate observes, “treating Brown’s personality as the interesting thing about him means that Taylor doesn’t end up saying much about Brown’s music, the fascinating way it was made, or the colossal effect it had on the culture around it. As far as Get On Up is concerned, James Brown was an unstoppable personality more than he was a musician; the film suffers from the Great Man theory of funk.”
That is to say, Get On Up’s James Brown comes across as showing little regard for his fellow musicians. He’s the boss, and they’re just there to follow his lead. In reality, all of Brown’s music was heavily collaborative, and Brown worked hard to gain recognition for the talents playing alongside him. But in the film, there’s a distinct feeling the voices of those playing with him didn’t matter. Even Bobby Byrd, the man who essentially made Brown’s career possible and is widely regarded as a funk and soul legend in his own right, appears as a lame sidekick, not someone immortalized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Slate notes that Byrd “morosely explains that James is a genius whose coattails he’s lucky enough to ride, and that he himself wasn’t meant to be a frontman. The Byrd who had a decade-long string of R&B hits with Brown backing him up—the best-remembered is ‘I Know You Got Soul’—might have disagreed.”
The major scene that illustrates the film’s neglect of supporting musicians depicts the rehearsal for Brown’s 1967 hit “Cold Sweat.” In the scene, Brown belittles Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) for not understanding the musicality of the oddly-constructed song, while bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (Tariq Trotter) sits next to him uncomfortably. These two are both represented as mindless employees, verbally abused by Brown but staying with him for the money, instead of the valuable contributors they actually were. Pee Wee Ellis is a phenomenal arranger and co-writer of most of Brown’s biggest hits; in the film he’s just another goof in the band, lucky to be sitting in the same room as Brown.
The film almost entirely dismisses other musical legends who contributed to Brown’s legacy during his career, such as drummer Clyde Stubblefield, widely considered one of the best drummers in history, whose pattern in Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is one of the most sampled pieces of music in existence.
(On another note, the film also ignores Brown’s musical evolution throughout the 70’s. As the above Slate article continues, “In the 1970s—a period that Taylor skips over almost entirely—Brown kept reinventing himself; already an old man in a young man’s game, he turned his age to his advantage as ‘The Godfather of Soul.’ He slowed down his pace to a murderous saunter on ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’; he bounced and whooped over trickier intersecting rhythms than ever before on ‘Get on the Good Foot.’ ”)
Brown’s music and legacy reverberated through everyone that came after. Brown addresses this himself during the film, saying his music is always ahead of its time - go put on any record you have, none of it is going to sound like James Brown. And that’s the truth. But instead of exploring what elements came together enabling Brown to create that music and examining why the sound permeated through the artform so well, we get the usual story of a blessed genius overcoming the odds to become a big star.
The cinematic narrative of the star from humble beginnings achieving great renown is a tried-and-true formula - it seems to be the foundation of every second biopic produced. The more interesting story here is the music, and in Get On Up, music takes a back seat to character. While that still makes for a pretty good film with captivating performances, it doesn’t quite do justice to the funk.