On the way to see Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, in a cinema in Victoria this week, I realised that I was walking past a construction site where once had stood the last place where I saw a performance by the film’s subject. It was the end of the 1970s, and the place was the Venue, a medium-sized joint with an uninspiring name but an excellent atmosphere. I saw all kinds of people there, from the McGarrigle sisters to Sun Ra, via Gary U.S. Bonds and Joe Ely. And the Godfather of Soul was in terrific form that night, not far past his untouchable prime.
Taylor’s movie features a fine central performance by Chadwick Boseman. He doesn’t become his character in the way Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles a few years ago, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He and the brothers Jamarion and Jordan Scott, eight-year-old twins from Mississippi who play Brown at various stages of his childhood, are tackling the story of a complex man.
There are too many artful devices — Brown talking directly to the camera, the boy suddenly appearing in place of the man in a scene from his adult life, various games with flashbacks and original footage — to make it work as a straightforward narrative. At times it seems as though the scriptwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, were influenced more by the multi-faceted approach of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There than by traditional modes of storytelling, but they don’t go the whole way.
Like Taylor Hackford with Ray, the director of Get On Up makes the sensible decision to stick with the original music: what you see is actor-musicians miming, very convincingly, to the real tracks, from “Please Please Please” to “The Payback”. And on a cinema sound system it sounds great, particularly in a reconstruction of the scene from the 1965 teen flick Ski Party where he debuts “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (here’s the original), and in a great recreation of a Paris concert in, I think, 1971 (original here).
It’s a long film at two and a quarter hours, but even that isn’t enough in which to tell the story properly. Give the great documentary maker Ken Burns 1o hours of television time and there might be a chance. Whether or not it works in every dimension, however, Taylor’s film certainly succeeds in two areas. There’s a fruitful concentration on Brown’s relationships with Bobby Byrd, an original member of the Famous Flames who became his right-hand man, and with Ben Bart, his trusted (white) agent, who dropped dead on a golf course in 1968. And the early scenes of Brown’s life as a child — first in a shack in the Georgia pines while his parents’ relationship was falling apart, and then as a kind of mascot in a brothel — make us think about what he endured on the way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
In September 1969, 10 years before that gig at the Venue, Charlie Gillett and I interviewed him (for the Record Mirror and the Melody Maker, respectively). We asked him if, at a time of continuing racial unrest in the United States, with the echoes of the shots that killed Martin Luther King still reverberating, he believed that he had some role and influence as a leader.
“If I can use my position to bring about better understanding,” he told us, “I should take advantage of the opportunity. I want people to respect other people, to see that all kinds of different people, yellow, black, are people! To see that there are all ways of living, and they can exist side by side. I hope I can help to bring people closer together.”
The day after I saw the film, riots broke out again in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere across the USA in response to the decision not to prosecute the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. For all its frequent moments of exhilaration, Get On Up is also a reminder that, beneath the surface, not much has really changed. Or at least much less than we might have hoped.
* The photograph is of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up.