He couldn’t have known it at the time, but James Brown’s debut recording and first chart hit — made in 1956 with the Famous Flames — is a question that contains its own answer. The lyrics to “Please, Please, Please” speak, pretty obviously, of sexual desire. But Brown’s voice is so hungry that a hundred compliant girls could never satisfy him. It’s spectacular, raw, and regal, a kind of human sacrifice in vocal form. The song’s ambition goes beyond that of just getting the girl — that’s the easy part, especially if you can sing like James Brown.
Sung by a young black man who was born in a shack in South Carolina, whose parents abandoned him when he was small, who by age 17 had already done jail time — a harsh enough story that wasn’t even the worst of its kind in early- to midcentury black America — “Please, Please, Please” isn’t a query but a demand, bold enough to set off tremors. Attention, God: Please give me the world. After all you’ve put me through, it’s not too much to ask.
That boldness is the guiding spirit of Tate Taylor’s subtly extraordinary James Brown biopic Get On Up, in which Chadwick Boseman plays the man who, seemingly just by willing it to be so, became the Godfather of Soul. Get On Up isn’t a perfect-picture; there are moments of awkwardness, little gambles that don’t quite pay off. But it’s one of those experiments that’s both flawed and amazing, a mainstream movie (with Mick Jagger as one of its producers) that fulfills old-fashioned, entertainment-value requirements, even as it throws off flashes of insight.
Instead of telling Brown’s story in strict chronological terms, Taylor, working from a script by Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, gives it a sort of spiritual chronology. He doesn’t set up events or scenes in a way that signals their power; he springs them on us like bear traps, or like songs, leaving us to sort out their meaning as we go along. In a moment that sneaks up on us, we see the preteen Brown (played by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) tugging the two-tone shoes off a lynched corpse, a moment that would be funny if its context weren’t so horrible. The shoes are way too big for little Brown, but Taylor shows us, discreetly, that he hangs onto them, year after year, until at last they fit. And then he shows that these ill-gotten shoes are not miracle shoes: They can’t help the young-adult Brown outrun the cops, who chase him down for stealing a three-piece suit from a parked car.
Did Brown really steal a suit from a car (in the movie, it’s the thing that lands him his first jail sentence), or, for that matter, shoes from a corpse? Probably only Brown himself, who died in 2006, knows for sure. Boseman, in this grand yet gently shaded performance, may not be playing the James Brown; he’s probably playing an idea of James Brown, the amalgam of life and legend that Brown himself so carefully cultivated. But it’s an idea that rings with integrity, and Boseman and Taylor touch upon many things that we know to be true: We see Brown circa 1988 threatening a bunch of white people gathered for an insurance class (in a building he owns), waving a shotgun and spouting nonsense that, even in his drug-addled state, isn’t wholly nonsensical. We see him and the Famous Flames ripping it up on the T.A.M.I. Show, in 1964, leaving behind nothing but scorched earth for the closing act, the Rolling Stones — they troop onstage meekly, like shamed schoolboys. (No wonder Jagger has so much respect for Brown.)
We see Brown fining the members of his band for minor infractions, and we see longtime collaborators like Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) straining under his tyranny. We see Brown struggling with tax problems of his own making and roughing up one of his wives, DeeDee (Jill Scott) — Get On Up isn’t a hagiography. But we also see how much he suffered when his mother abandoned him: Viola Davis, one of the best actresses we’ve got, bar none, plays Susie Brown, and the scene in which she reconnects with her son after his landmark Apollo Theater show becomes the movie’s touchstone — not because it provides a Freudian “he didn’t get enough love from Mama” explanation, but because it shows, with piercing specificity, the mutual suffering of two people linked by blood.
Between Davis, Ellis, and everyone else, Get On Up is packed with sterling performances, mostly from actors of color. (Dan Aykroyd is also wonderful, as Brown’s longtime agent Ben Bart.) The awful reality is that you have to make a “black” movie to find this many good roles for black actors, performers are so often relegated to playing Random Guy #4 in action movies. The good news is that, in the past few years, between The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave, more movies about black America have managed to get made. Taylor, a white guy, is also the director of another civil rights drama, The Help, and some may question, reasonably enough, why there aren’t more directors of color around to make movies like this one.
But it’s the job of white people to be students of the history of black America — we’re doomed if we’re not. And to that end, Taylor makes some extremely smart choices in Get On Up: Most notably, he stops the movie’s action now and then to have Boseman address the camera directly, always a risky proposition. In the first of these bracingly straightforward missives, Brown tells us, “You can bet your bottom dollar that every record you’ve got has a piece of me on it” — a not-so-veiled reference to his enduring influence and to the number of times he’s been sampled, illegally or otherwise. It’s a strange and brilliant approach. Brown’s message, channeled through Boseman, is that we — all of us, black people and white ones — made him what he is today, what he continues to be from beyond the grave.
These asides are at times accusatory and scolding. But mostly, they’re conspiratorial, an acknowledgment, from a guy who wasn’t exactly humble, that he needed us to love him. Boseman has the moves to play James Brown. His bones and his muscles, like Brown’s, seem to be articulated in a way that defies God’s plan for how our bodies should move. Brown’s shimmying, shimmering mashed potato, his daring splits, his delightful pantomime, carefully honed over the years, of falling to his knees in exhaustion, only to be brought back to life by the ministrations of a humble assistant — usually Byrd — rushing forward to drape a royal cloak around his shoulders: Boseman and Taylor re-create it all for us, but they also show us how much all of it meant, to the culture at large and to Brown himself. Please, please, please. Through sheer force of will, James Brown made sure the answer was yes.