"James Brown. James Brown. James Brown."
From early on, James Joseph Brown Jr. would bolster himself with that mantra. It was a sort of reminder of who he was. Especially since it always seemed that life was trying to snuff him out, beating on him with a big hard-knuckled fist.
When he was a boy he was shuffled from a one-roomed deep-woods shack to sharing a backroom bed in his Aunt Honey's house of ill repute to landing in a barren jail cell for petty theft. But all along the way, he never let his surroundings strip him of who he was. He'd just keep repeating, "James Brown. James Brown. James Brown." And it would keep him going somehow.
There was only one other thing that would lift young James back to his feet when he was slammed on his face in the dust: music. Music and James Brown just seemed to go together like breathing and life. You couldn't have one without the other. So when James wasn't singing on a street corner to draw johns into his aunt's web of prostitution, he was singing and dancing at the local Pentecostal church.
And with time, an interesting and almost inevitable thing began to happen. Music and the chanted name James Brown didn't just lift up a battered kid from Barnwell, South Carolina, anymore: In combination those two special things started lifting up everybody, everywhere.
You better get back, now, 'cause bring James Brown and his new brand of funky music into a room, and people couldn't keep their feet from tappin'. They couldn't stop their bodies from dancin'. They couldn't help but call out, "James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!"
The film points out that James Brown indeed had a lasting impact on his generation and modern pop music. And that he was also something of a social activist. After Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, Brown held a televised concert that was credited with quelling potential riots. He recorded songs promoting black pride and encouraging African-American kids to stay in school through a heavy drop-out period in the 1960s.
Although the now regularly touring Brown was never one to stay at home and raise a family, the film does show (at least momentary) signs of his love for his kids. And even though he rejects his mother's renewed overtures of friendship—years after she abandoned him as a child—James arranges to have the woman's financial needs met. He fines bandmates who swear or take drugs.
Part of Brown's repeated mantra is an assurance that he doesn't need anyone other than himself. But he eventually comes to realize that the relationships and love of good friends is vital.
As a boy, young James Brown wanders into a Pentecostal church and is mesmerized by a preacher in a white suit who dances and hollers out "hallelujahs" from the stage. "Let the holy ghost hit ya!" the man screams. (That spiritual bombast eventually inspires some of Brown's own theatrics in his concerts.)
A gospel band sings the song "Mary Don't You Weep." And when a member of that group asks his mother to help Brown, he reminds her of her favorite saying: "Sinners stand in mercy's way." A few years later, Brown has an after-performance conversation with a young Lil' Richard, and the two talk of the devil's temptations.
A topless prostitute leans out of an upstairs window, her arms strategically placed to cover most but not all of her breasts. Men at a brothel kiss and caress scantily clad women. A good friend named Bobby walks in on his sister having sex with James Brown. The two are going at it up against her dresser (while mostly clothed). "Men gonna lay with women, that's nature," Brown tells Bobby. "But a woman ain't gonna stop a man from his purpose."
In the course of the movie's decade-hopping narrative, we're introduced to two of Brown's four wives and several of his children, but the details of his many reported sexual affairs are mostly glossed over and/or ignored. Occasional vague comments by bandmates, and scenes featuring female admirers, merely suggest that his trysts were a regular occurrence. We see women mobbing him, grasping at him and swarming around him as he steps off the stage. Lil' Richard gives James Brown a number of steamy come-hither looks as the two talk casually about their future singing careers.
Brown's father and mother go from being on the verge of a physical fight to embracing and smothering each other with lustful kisses. The man picks up his wife and carries her to the bed. Later, Brown spots his mother, now a prostitute, hanging all over another man.
James Brown's female dancers regularly wear miniskirts and other formfitting outfits onstage. Women around a pool wear revealing swimsuits. A neighbor (and the camera) ogles Brown's wife DeeDee's ample cleavage as she bends over at a Christmas party …
Brown notices this attention and later beats his wife to the ground for "flaunting herself" that way. This is the only violent treatment of any of his wives that we see, but it's implied he's become a regular abuser. And that pattern of ugly mistreatment of woman has apparently been picked up from his father. Early on in James' life, his dad slaps his mother around and even shoots at a tree branch near her head. The man also slings young James around, slapping him across the face.
A young James is pulled into a "contest" where a group of black children are blindfolded and given oversized boxing gloves to pummel one another with. The boys are sent, one by one, crashing to the mat after getting hit in the face and stomach. (The whole affair is designed to entertain white revelers.) Much later, Brown starts a prison brawl by punching a fellow inmate in the face.
A drugged-up Brown walks into a lecture hall swinging a shotgun. He accidentally shoots the weapon into the ceiling, causing quite a ruckus and panic. He runs away from the arriving police, triggering a blockade-smashing car chase that only ends when the cops shoot out his windshield and tires.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Brown laces a marijuana joint he's rolling with a crystalline drug (likely PCP). We don't see him smoke this juiced-up joint, but it's apparent that he has. As a boy, James lures prospective "clients" to his aunt's brothel with calls of "Pretty girls! Whiskey!" And indeed we see the johns (some of them soldiers) holding glasses of booze as they talk to and caress the young women there. Partiers drink beer and hard liquor, as does a group in a crowded dance hall. Brown's elderly mother swills champagne. Bandmates and other hangers-on guzzle alcohol in several scenes. Bobby is a chain-smoker. Brown and a number of others light up from time to time as well.
Known almost as much for his slippery-foot dance moves and bouncing acrobatics as for his full-throated vocals, James Brown was an iconic trendsetter in 20th-century popular music. Get on Up makes that fact abundantly clear. The film tells the singer's story in a series of back-and-forth, decades-leaping flashbacks as it giddily performs its way through his musical repertoire.
The real-world, well-documented nastier side to James Brown's persona is a bit sugarcoated here. His womanizing, wife-beating and eventual heavy drug use seem to get quickly brushed aside in favor of a few more groovy tunes and cool rock star shenanigans. But is it too quickly dismissed? Or not quickly enough? That depends on your perspective and what you're looking for in a biopic, because moviegoers still witness some grunting sexuality, misogynistic manhandlings and moments of drug-connected bad behavior. And that makes this something of a mixed musical bag.
James Brown fans will certainly enjoy the performances and appreciate an inside look at what created the "hardest working man in show business." But they won't necessarily leave the theater singing "I Feel Good."