A PG-13 film about a man like James Brown sounds… challenging. Many details about Brown’s life (as far as the public knows) don’t call to mind as being PG-13 friendly. But that’s the rating achieved by Get On Up (2014), a portrait of the funk legend chronicling his troubled early childhood, pushing through to the 1990s and the later years of his performance career. While the film carries an unexpectedly peaceful rating and tone, and though it does leave out a good bit of depth, it is accurate in its depictions of important events and details about Brown’s life.
According to a number of side-by-side historical comparisons (like this one and this one), Get On Up is quite legitimate in its broad-stroke representations of Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman) personal story. Yes, he really took part in a one-armed, blindfolded boxing fight as a child. Yes, he really met Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) in prison. Yes, Little Richard (Brandon Mychal Smith) really encouraged him to get a record deal. And yes, in 1988 he really went into an office building with a shotgun after someone used his bathroom, then led the police on a fourteen-car chase.
As with any biopic, the screenwriters took a few liberties to spice up some details and make a good film narrative. For instance, there’s no record that Brown’s plane was actually shot down over Vietnam. Nor did his estranged mother (Viola Davis) actually show up backstage at his performance at the Apollo. And though she did abandon Brown because of a violent relationship with his father (Lennie James), she was in and out of his life more frequently than the film implies, during the time Brown lived in his Aunt Honey’s (Octavia Spencer) brothel. (And despite the name, the real Aunt Honey, who used to lock Brown in closets and tell him he was ugly, wasn’t as cheerful and sweet as Spencer’s version.) These disruptions in fact are not detrimental to Get On Up’s credibility, but are manipulations of reality that better drive the narrative structure of the film.
Get On Up also has its share of generally-accurate scenes that, while not false, are somewhat distorted in their representation. For instance,
“Some of the details surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the concert Brown performed afterward are oversimplified. Chronologically speaking, the film has Brown find out about King’s death while recording “Mother Popcorn (You Got to Have a Mother For Me),” which wasn’t actually recorded until 1969. While Brown’s defusing of the tension at the April 5 concert in Boston was undoubtedly brave, and even a risk to his life, some ulterior motives were at play. Brown refused to go onstage until Mayor Kevin White agreed to pay him. He used the night’s tension to his advantage, though his actions were still deservedly considered heroic.” - Slate
The above scene is one of many within the film that one-dimensionalize what were truly complex events; a narrative move that doesn’t necessarily detract from the accuracy of Get On Up’s scenes, but diminishes the weight and significance of them. That approach somewhat candy-coats a good portion of the film.
To that end, aside from a short drug scene following the death of Brown’s son Teddy, and the 1988 car chase, there’s little reference to the darker elements of Brown’s later life.
“The movie elides many of his other troubles: The IRS seized his house and sued him for $9 million; he had two more marriages both characterized by domestic violence and substance abuse; the police visited him at least 10 times over the course of two years; he struggled with drug abuse and went to rehab; and he was indicted for a number of felonies.” - Slate
But by that point in the biopic, those details aren’t necessary to show. The film is peppered with moments of Brown acting out of selfishness, hitting wives, and revealing the seedier sides of his personality. There’s an expectation that those behaviors continued throughout his life, and they did.
“To be frank, that’s the most horribly celebrated part of James’ life with American culture,” director Tate Taylor said to The Washington Post. “I wanted audiences to see what this man did. What his real legacy is, what he meant to the African American race. I really want younger people, and even older people, who love the music they’re listening to today, to realize it would not be here if it were not for James Brown.”
Still, the tone of Get On Up ends up glossy. It shows the details without really digging into them, and the end result leaves the viewer with a little more information about Brown, but not much. It misses the opportunity to reveal a significantly deeper person within James Brown than the one everyone already saw on stage and in the news.
“Get on Up never quite gets to the heart, or indeed the soul, of James Brown – which it might have, had it ditched a half hour of its run time and focused more consistently on his relationships with Bart or Byrd.” - The Guardian
The exceptionally detailed performance by Chadwick Boseman is what holds the film together. His rendition of James Brown is worth the price of admission alone. Between this film and his acclaimed portrayal of Jackie Robinson a year earlier in 42 (2013), he’s proving to be a go-to actor for this type of work.