Awkward and shapeless as most biopics have historically been, most of them at least understand that what attracts audiences to them in the first place—aside from the spectacle of having actors and makeup technicians trying to one-up each others’ performances—is their depictions of both their subjects’ rise and their fall. Dramatizations of famous people waiting on tables, counting their pennies, finally hoisting up and tearing down that country road toward their destinies are dramatic. Illustrations of power and influence slipping through larger-than-life personalities’ fingers as they spiral inevitably toward substance abuse and domestic betrayals are dramatic. Dwelling on the simple fact that somebody was electrifyingly talented when, even under the best circumstances, the actor you’re watching play that person can still only muster a pale shadow of said celebrity’s genius? Not inherently dramatic.
That the time-shuffling James Brown biopic Get on Up opens with an unmistakable low point in the Godfather of Funk’s long and checkered history, with the musician waving around a shotgun while trainees at one of his franchise locations cower in terror, turns out to be a major red herring. As if taking a cue from its own title, the movie emphatically sets its sights on the upward trajectory of Brown’s career, spending the bulk of its time depicting how Brown (played with winning doses of insouciance by Chadwick Boseman) transcended his abusive, backwoods upbringing and his adolescence spent in servitude to his brothel-madam aunt, promising “Pretty girls! Whiskey!” to roving packs of Korean War veterans traveling through town. (In one disquieting, isolated sequence, the preteen Brown is seen pulling a pair of shiny dress shoes from the swinging corpse of a lynched man.) Sentenced to prison for upward of 10 years for stealing a man’s suit, Brown quickly befriends Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the frontman of the Famous Flames, a gospel group that performs at Brown’s penitentiary, and helps him get his feet on the ground once he’s released. Brown joins their group, teaches them to sing from the crotch, and swipes the microphone at a juke joint while Little Richard takes a tinkle break out back, a breach of etiquette that earns the “Tutti Frutti” superstar-in-waiting’s respect. (As Richard, Brandon Mychal Smith works stank-face wonders with his one-scene part, alternately warning Brown of the dangers of “white devil” record execs and feeling him up and down with his darting eyes.)
Bolstered by the enthusiastic response their new act has been getting, the Famous Flames implode before they can even tour the chitlin’ circuit in earnest. The record company decides Brown has to be a headliner, and the rest of the group will have to be satisfied with standing behind an ampersand. Despite Brown’s reassurance that he had nothing to do with the decision, they bristle and walk. All except Byrd. The episode is but one of the many instances of Get on Up conflating Brown’s musical genius with his basically compassionate nature, as if asserting both to be mutual givens, an attitude that comes to find its most prominent example in Byrd himself.
To wit, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Brown’s turbulent life knows there are countless narrative ellipses being quietly shuffled out of the deck via the film’s jumbled chronology. Only once does the film show him abusing drugs. Only twice does the film depict him engaging in the kind of domestic abuse that plagued his police record for decades, and even one of those moments transforms into extra-heavy petting. (The film repeatedly evinces a weirdly retro-revisionist take on the concept of sexual violence as foreplay. As did Brown’s parents, so does Brown himself: slapping, then tickling—or vice versa.) In place of these or any other legitimately dramatic elements of Brown’s life that don’t involve hiring and then firing musicians who would later become key members of Parliament-Funkadelic’s lineup, Byrd is left to bind the film’s hagiographic-leaning pieces together. As the film turns a blind eye to why Brown moved from ex-wife to ex-wife, it basks in the reason Byrd remains loyal to Brown: As he tells Maceo Parker (a subdued Craig Robinson), there comes a time when lesser talents come to realize they need to back off in order to allow the greater talent to shine, and maybe if they’re lucky they’ll be swept up in the glory. A sentiment I’ve no doubt the makers of the well-acted but frustratingly inert Get on Up understand all too well.