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Pop Art

Get On Up: Putting James Brown's Music First

In his 2006 profile "Being James Brown," the great lost rock critic Jonathan Lethem made sense of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Minister of Super Heavy Funk, the Augusta Akhenaten, and all the other honorifics Mr. Brown has and will earn by declaring him a time traveler. Hence, 1958's "Night Train" and 1965's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and 1967's "Cold Sweat" all prefigured the super heavy funk that would take over black popular music in the early '70s--whereupon Brown elected to prefigure gangsta rap with 1973's "The Payback." Hence also his decision to re-record 1971's "Soul Power" in 2005, all the while exclaiming that he wanted to kiss himself as if the possibility had never before occurred to him.

So on the principle of once a time traveler always a time traveler, I'm down with the way director Tate Taylor and his screenwriters begin their JB biopic Get On Up in 1988 and jump-cut all over his exceptionally eventful career thereafter. It helps that the timeline is less confusing than you'd think from the pursed lips and bewildered wails of the flick's dimmer reviewers. But with a few welcome exceptions--Andrew O'Hehir and Stephanie Zacharek, get on up now--even the smarter ones gave the impression that Brown's music was over their heads, and that therefore his film was too.

The fact is, once Get On Up" gets on back to Brown's young boyhood in Georgialina's piney woods, all it does is lay out a rough chronology with explanatory flashbacks. True, sometimes the flashbacks get pretty heavy--the blindfolded boyhood battle royal straight outta Ralph Ellison, the 1962 reunion with his mother at the Apollo. But compared to other geniuses--Ray Charles somehow comes to mind--Mr. Brown led the world on quite a chase. So rather than providing a comforting narrative resolution, his biopic evokes the unreal if not supernatural perplexities of its subject by time-traveling too.

I've seen Get On Up twice, at a well-received preview and an 8 p.m. Times Square show kicking off its second week. That show was also well-received--at the end there was applause from an audience that included more African-American parent-youngster combos than I'm used to. But total turnout was only 50 or so, boding ill for such a widely advertised and anticipated piece of work. Movie critics, while positive, have been less than ecstatic--Rotten Tomatoes makes the film a 77 where Tate Taylor's Oscar-nominated The Help came in at 76 and Taylor Hackford's (and Jamie Foxx Jr.'s) decade-old Ray at 82. So let a music critic weigh in. Not just good--great. Better than The Help, which I quite admire, and Ray, which I love. A mite short of a work of genius--it fudges too much and mythologizes beyond the call of narrative necessity. But worthy of the genius who inspired it nevertheless.

For accuracy's sake, still more should have been made of Brown's scrupulously acknowledged limitations as a black capitalist and his violence toward women. The eight-year-old twins who play the very young James are physically incapable of conveying how bereft the four-year-old must have felt after his mother ran off and his abusive father left him completely alone in the woods for days at a time. And although Chadwick Boseman's astonishing Brown and Viola Davis's subtle Susie have their most complex moments in that Apollo scene, trapped in a past no time-traveling shamanism can make right, it's a set piece, explaining too much about a hero so singular he remains inexplicable.

But that's as near as the film gets to a resolution except for a climactic scene starring Brown's estranged savior-turned-sidekick Bobby Byrd that I'd estimate takes place in 1976, when Nelsan Ellis's patient, unassuming Byrd attends a concert and is visibly moved for the ten-thousandth time by how irresistibly his adopted brother turned tyrannical ex-boss seizes the moment. It's as near as Get On Up gets to a feel-good moment, a lack of closure that's disquieting by definition and probably design. Even reviewers who liked the film were shocked by Brown's fathomless ego and terrible drive. A few who didn't were unsure he deserved a movie at all.

I say the James Brown story damn well ought to be disquieting, especially if the disquiet is both eased and complicated by how funny it is. Along with most of the audience, I couldn't help laughing both with and at Brown's audacity, and at the impossible fact that such a man not only existed but could be re-created on the screen. >From the 1988 opening in which a PHP-wacked Brown terrorizes an insurance seminar because someone has used his bathroom to the long rear shot of a Brown past his moment striding alone to the stage of Atlanta's Omni, Get On Up does justice to his unknowable soul and his unending music, both of which defy closure by definition.

Very little is made of Soul Brother Number 1's soul in this film--the term and the cultural idea it encompasses are basically an excuse for one more honorific. Even when King Records' Syd Nathan complains about the young unknown's "Please, Please, Please" back in 1956, it's not the kid's gospel-conjuring grit and shout that grate on the old curmudgeon. It's his apparent formlessness, his redefinition of what constitutes a song, his burgeoning intuition that his natural music refuses closure.

Get On Up is much longer on music than most musical biopics, and that music is riveting. Like a saxophonist risking 16th-note solos because Charlie Parker proved it could be done, the hard-practicing Boseman learned to dance so fluidly that his dubbed vocals seem to emanate from his body. The soundtrack too is sometimes "faked"--the pop production team the Underdogs laid new tracks under a few of the selected Brown vocals. Yet even as it time-travels around Brown's long recording history, the soundtrack album plays almost as smoothly as the Brown box set Star Time, one of the best-programmed compilations ever.

For music people, the idea that Brown's decisive contribution to world culture was rhythmic, not vocal or political or harmonic or melodic, is by now a commonplace. But for pop aesthetes from other fields, movie critics in particular, the importance of this idea is clearly still a leap. As a music person, I believe Get On Up's continuing insistence on the point, culminating in the scene where Brown browbeats every musician in his band into acknowledging that his instrument is a drum, is the best and bravest thing about it, and the smarter reviewers definitely noticed. But whether they wholeheartedly accepted it is another matter. It's such a generative concept that I doubt many music people have fully absorbed it.

In fact, I'm not so sure I have. But I'm impressed enough to believe that a film that conveys that concept has a serious shot at great not good, and that the genius who put it into practice had to be both gifted enough and driven enough to be terrible and unknowable. And I'm music person enough to feel both proud and chagrined that even now his genius probably won't get as much respect as it deserves.

Billboard, August 22, 2014