In Augusta, Georgia during 1988, the influential soul singer James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) pulled up outside one of his business establishments where a meeting was being held within. He walked into the place brandishing a shotgun and called the talk to a halt, for he wanted to know who had defecated into his toilet on the premises, and while he was indulging in a spiel of his own he accidentally discharged the weapon, sending the attendees to the floor. Once he found out the woman who had emptied her bowels recently, he commenced another talk as the police were called, but never mind that because back in the Vietnam War era, Brown was nearly shot down on a concert tour...
This distracted structure to what was yet another music biopic was the form Get On Up adopted, and not everyone responded favourably, feeling that it distracted the audience too and the script from British writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth was needlessly tricksy in a story that did not really welcome it. On the other hand, who needed yet another of these movies that did things exactly by the book and took no chances whatsoever? At least you could observe they were doing something interesting around a terrific performance from Boseman (and Nelsan Ellis as his right hand man Bobby Byrd) who did far more with an icon than, say, André Benjamin had with his Jimi Hendrix biopic the same year; it wasn't provocative, exactly, maybe not even all that innovative, but it did keep you on your toes.
Obviously if you had read up on your James Brown history there were deeper issues you could take with it than that, as the credits ran the usual disclaimer that yes, it was based on real events but they had been dramatised and bits had been made up for the sake of keeping the plot going (not in so many words, but this was the gist). So parts of Brown's life were chopped and changed and, well, fictionalised, but was this in service of attaining a dramatic truth or was it just lazy filmmaking? Certainly you could not look at Boseman in this and see anything but a committed reading of Brown, even if the makeup was not always the best: his sheer force of personality shone through and made for a compelling watch. Alas, too many were rather sniffy about the rest of it.
One amusing element director Tate Taylor encouraged was to have his star address the camera, breaking the fourth wall, sometimes with just a look. As with a film like Alfie, where Michael Caine's acknowledgement of the audience watching was an implied invitation to judge him, so it was here, and when Brown is seen beating one of his wives (which we only see once, though the real life man was well documented as having a problematic attitude to women stemming from his absent mother who is depicted here) and glances at us as if to say, "what are you going to do about it?" it's a complex scene, because it gives us ammunition to despise him while still having us understand his genius partly lay in how temperamental he was. Irrational, even: when his band stand up to him about how little he was paying them (if anything), he begins to look as if he belongs on another planet.
Call it Planet James Brown, and the film wrestles with the dilemma of presenting its subject as an undeniable force for cultural good while having to offer a rounded account of a man who was not the greatest guy to be around if you caught him on a bad day. Still, for much of the latter there were simply allusions, such as his drugs problem, which is summed up in one shot as an explanation of what he was up to when the events that kick off the film occurred. But then we see a very strong sequence where he played Boston and stopped that city's African American populace from rioting as many others were - it's tense and well conveyed. Nevertheless, the suspicion some had about a movie about a groundbreaking black artist being made by a bunch of white folks (at least that was one perception) prevented many from getting into it who otherwise would have appreciated some generally fine work. Mick Jagger was producer, a man who definitely owed Brown a sizeable debt; if anything they could have gone further in shaking up the format. Music by Thomas Newman, with plenty of Brown tunes.