I’m watching a movie on a plane. It is a story of a young Black man coming from nothing without a real mother or father, who went on to become the champion of the world. It could have been the James Brown story but it’s not. It’s the documentary The Undisputed Truth made by Spike Lee about Mike Tyson. I laughed and I cried and I didn’t want it to end. That’s what I should have felt watching the James Brown movie.
The problem with Get on Up is that it never does get on up to the heights it should. As I write this the police are lining the streets of Ferguson with military equipment in their hands. I think America, particularly Black America deserves better, and needs better than this poor film.
And I am sorry it is just that. A poor film. No, not the acting; Chaswick Boseman in particular does a fine job – it is simply a poor film in terms of its construction, its editing, directing and most importantly for this movie, in the way it fails to deliver the story it really should be telling.
Quite naturally I come to this from a biased perspective and I know I can’t put aside that bias when watching and discussing this film. But my bias has turned into something substantially broader than whether or not the film does “right” in its portrayal of some the members of the James Brown Band. Or even a grumble that so many are missing entirely from the story. My bias has now become much broader because James Brown – for all his faults and flaws- really deserved better.
The storyline of Get on Up is basically: Black kid who came from nothing, from poorest of poor, made a lot of money in the music business, went a bit crazy through drugs, lost all his money and possibly his mind and waved a gun around. Is this the important message of the movie for 2014? I’m hearing a lot of “at least kids will learn about James Brown from the movie” – but learn what exactly?
In the 1960s the two most powerful Black icons in the world were James Brown and Mohamed Ali. What each contributed to Black Power and to Black Pride would take a longer essay than this, and I am certainly not the person to deliver it.
Even now in 2014 with a Black President sitting in the White House, the shadowy side of the USA is playing out on the streets of Ferguson.
I’ve been talking to people who drive the shuttles to and from the shops and airports, the radio DJs, Cops on the street, and the families of some of the band members, to hotel staff and Sky Caps. Most African Americans over a certain age will tell you about the first James Brown concert they went to. I just spoke to man whose mother took him to see James Brown in concert at 5 years old, he’s going to be celebrating his 45th birthday this weekend, I don’t know him – may never meet him again, but he still remembers that concert and wanted to tell me about it. And it is that aspect of cultural influence: the degree to which James Brown is embedded in African American culture – indeed in American culture per se, which is completely absent from this film.
The film lets down the generations who were growing up with James Brown and generations to come, it lets down every single person who can remember their first James Brown concert, and- believe me they remember it for a reason. It lets down a massive chunk of the Civil Rights Movement. It lets down that Airline employee in New Orleans who asked Maceo not for a handshake but a hug when he realised whose passport he was holding.
This film doesn’t know if it’s a comedy, a biopic, a musical or a love story, and consequently fails at really being anything, except possibly a love story but we will arrive at that in due course.
Characters from real life are misrepresented or entirely missing, and if you fail to see why that’s important then watch again that superb roll call moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing
“Mister Senor Love Daddy: WE LOVE ROLL CALL, Y’ALL! Boogie Down Productions, Rob Base, Dana Dane, Marley Marl, Olatunji, Chuck D, Ray Charles, EPMD, EU, Alberta Hunter, Run-D.M.C., Stetsasonic, Sugar Bear, John Coltrane, Big Daddy Kane, Salt-n-Pepa, Luther Vandross, McCoy Tyner, Biz Markie, New Edition, Otis Redding, Anita Baker, Thelonious Monk, Marcus Miller, Branford Marsalis, James Brown, Wayne Shorter, Tracy Chapman, Miles Davis, Force MDs, Oliver Nelson, Fred Wesley, Maceo, Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, George Clinton, Count Basie, Mtume, Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Dexter Gordon, Sam Cooke, Parliament-Funkadelic, Al Jarreau, Teddy Pendergrass, Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Phyllis Hyman, Sade, Sarah Vaughn, Roland Kirk, Keith Sweat, Kool Moe Dee, Prince, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Bessie Smith, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Steel Pulse, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson, Cannonball AND Nat Adderley, Quincy Jones Marvin Gaye, Charles Mingus AND Marion Williams. We wanna thank you all for makin’ our lives just a little brighter here on We Love Radio!”
People care about the accuracy and the missing elements of the sidemen because they have always loved those people; the ones whose contributions helped to create and define the James Brown sound. They are real and beloved to many. These are people that more than one generation can identify with, they are “regular” guys who compliment James Brown because they seem real whereas James Brown will always be a bit larger than life.
Maceo Parker tells a story of going to Africa with James and everywhere people are chanting “Maceo! Maceo!” thinking it to be a greeting. That’s what they knew from the records, it must be a greeting. Then at a conference James explains that Maceo is in fact a person; does this mean they are less excited? No, they are MORE excited, now they want to know everything about Maceo where was he born, where did he grow up, they chant his name outside the hotel, he can barely set foot outside for the whole trip.
But aside from missing Fred Wesley, Martha High and Danny Ray and the horrible misrepresentations of Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis (again I stress not the acting but the script), the crux of the matter, the very saddest bit is that James Brown himself is so badly represented. In the film his contribution to the history of music, not just R & B but all music that came after James Brown is boiled down to “everything being a drum”.
In his excellent review of the movie Nelson George points there’s no joining up the dots to explain why and how and wherefore James Brown became the linchpin of the Hip Hop movement. Indeed there is no explanation at all for why he became who he did. James Brown’s great talent was the pulling together of talent; the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts, but all musicians in this movie are reduced to a miserable bunch of moaners. With no sense of their musicianship either. I was going to say yeah, “shame on you Mick Jagger” but why would one expect that kind of insight from someone who has only ever been a mega-star?
We are supposed to understand the importance of Live at The Apollo without seeing the queues round the block at the Apollo Theater- for the 6 shows a day! Yes, you read that right, SIX shows a day. What does that tell you about wimps who do 60 mins and cry off?
“There isn’t enough time to show the conflicted nature of James and the the historical background” I’m told, but wait – isn’t that the job of a great movie to do just that? Whether it’s Ray, or Malcolm X? Surely it should be possible to draw a picture of a conflicted person, a contradictory person, and understand that against the backdrop of the USA and its dark history. Recently The Butler managed to give us the history of the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of one person more than adequately. If Get On Up had a little less returning to the same motifs of abandoned by mother (over and over and over again) would have given more time for the other stuff. Several of the lingering looks between Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson could have been cut at the end to make more room for a bit more history.
In a poor attempt to be like Ray and yet not like Ray, Get On Up fails because the confusing flashbacks lazily try to explain things, treating us often as if we are idiots, certainly talking down to us. Repetitive motifs bashing the point home, with no attempt to ask us to try understand either James Brown the human with all his complexities, or James Brown the arch manipulator, the unafraid Mohamed Ali of music. Certainly nothing to show how this man with the all the power he had, went from rubbing shoulders with Presidents to turning up and firing a shotgun into a ceiling for apparently very little reason except to get a cheap laugh. Quite frankly if this had been a movie warning us of the dangers of drug use it would have served us all far better.
I’m no apologist for James Brown, indeed because of fmy privileged position I’ve heard more stories than most. But part of the James Brown story is the massive contradictions that made up James Brown. His life story is less “poorest boy ever imaginable makes good” and more the story of how we as human beings are complex creatures who do both amazing and cruel things. It is quite possibly the story of how we get into this mess over and over again, but even without such a broad canvas we could have at least had some measure of the complexity of this character.
Get on Up is really a love story. Between Bobby Byrd and James Brown. No, not a love story in a sexual or romantic way, but in a buddy sort of way. Friend sticks with friend through thick and thin; they fall out; make up; fall out and eventually make up. This is also a long way from the truth, but at this point who’s counting? It’s nice for Bobby Byrd to get some props even if we have to wander into HollywoodHappyEndings to get it.
At the end of the day this film doesn’t make us care about anyone at all except possibly Bobby, and seems to be missing a thread to explain the last falling out only to be reconciled and Wow! invited to a concert, what a treat! As if Bobby and Vicki had never been at a concert before? Suddenly we are watching James Brown on stage in the least exciting period- musically speaking – of his life and it’s all so wonderful that Bobby forgives everything ever done to him?
The family influences which purportedly halted Spike Lee’s involvement as the original director by giving a mandate that no-one outside the family can be talked to, have mauled this story into their own making, that much you can work out from who is portrayed and who not. But once you start messing with the truth then the story itself becomes obfuscated and we end up with no succinct thread to the story of James Brown’s elevation or his fall from grace.
Yes it’s “just a movie”, but there’s something starting to bother me and it ought to bother you too: there’s slew of biopics with iconic figures from African American Music coming to a movie theatre near you very soon, and in the absence of verite things are being reduced to a very, very low common denominator which is quite possibly offensive to all of us.
Are Maceo and Pee Wee supposed to be grateful for being in the movie – never mind whether their characters are true or not? David “Fathead” Newman was hardly grateful for being untruthfully portrayed as the person who got Ray Charles hooked on smack. He was upset about this to the end of his days. Don’t kid yourselves Mick Jagger is not doing a Sam Wannamaker and giving us the Globe Theatre.
I’m tired of the line “the movie gives people more exposure to James Brown and young people will listen to the music” because it’s just so reminiscent of the line : “there’s no fee for this gig/tv appearance/documentary but it will give you loads of exposure”.
Maceo, Fred, Pee Wee, St Clair, Martha, Lynn, Marva, Clyde, Jabo, Melvin, Catfish, Jimmy Nolen, Kush, Waymon, Sweet Charles and so many, many more all have already made the history books. The records you can hear them on are that: RECORDS. Records of a time and place and a history which this movie fails to deliver.
So yes, of course this film should have had an African American Director because the Civil Rights Movement needs to be present here. We never saw a moment when band having played their concerts and then having to spend the night at the bus station because hotels and restaurants were segregated. We were never really subjected to the sheer force of nature that James Brown was for a period in history, that kid dancing barefoot outside the local brothel met Presidents and was quelling riots on the day Dr King was assassinated. He influenced everyone in music who was to come after him.
It’s the anniversary of Do The Right Thing this year. I challenge Spike Lee to make the real James Brown movie- here’s an idea: make it through the eyes of Maceo Parker. (yeah that’s my bias- but it can’t be such a bad one!) Take us from Civil Rights movement to see how we get to Ferguson in 2014. That’s the movie we need to see.