Sunday, September 14, 2014

Get On Up! and the Limits of the Biopic (or “DEATH TO THE BIOPIC!”)

While I generally do not see Hollywood movies these days, I try to make an exception for music biopics: not because I think they will be great films, but because I feel a duty to see how Hollywood presents, or often misrepresents, musicians, music and music history—especially since these accounts give many their “education” about legendary figures such as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Biggie Smalls to name but a few….and, now, James Brown. Directed by Tate Taylor, with a screenplay by the Butterworth brothers, and co-produced (and partially financed by) Mick Jagger. Get On Up (2014) is ostensibly a film about James Brown, but in many ways the film is as much about Hollywood as it is about Brown.

It is interesting to observe that the subjects of most of these major Hollywood biopics made in the past decade (with the exception of Biggie) emerged during the 1950s, a time when America was building its national (and imperial) mass culture identity. These stories of iconic figures that were the subject of Ray, Walk The Line, and Cadillac Records all tell us as much about the changes taking places in American culture (the ground) as they do about their ostensible subject (figure). In general, there is a reason so many more larger than life iconic musicians---even geniuses—emerged during that time than in more recent years. Electronic mass culture encouraged and nourished a present culture then, but now it prefers to use these figures, and our cultural past in general, to prevent something like this from happening today.

Part of this is due to the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s a more decentralized music culture (for instance, the chitlin circuit) dominated and generally lead the more centralized Hollywood culture, from the ground up. But since the early 1970s, the music culture of America takes its lead much more from an industry centralized in Hollywood (NYC and Nashville to a lesser extent, but increasingly Silicon Valley).

James Brown, in fact, touches on this transition that occurred in American music culture in his autobiography, when he speaks about what happened after Syd Nathan, the owner of his Cincinnati-based record label King Records, died and he had to search for new labels in the early 1970s, and large bureaucratic multi-national conglomerates like Polydor were now the only game in town. Of course, that insight, and chapter of JB’s life is absent from Get On Up (more on this egregious, but predictable, omission a little a later).

One Standard Cliche of the Music Biopic (a short summary)

In Ray (2004), the childhood accident that lead to Charles’ blindness is emphasized, not just for giving the gift of music, but as a way to locate a founding trauma that lead to the many demons that Ray had to battle in his own life. While racism, especially as experienced in the Jim Crow south, is not absent in this movie, his troubled childhood as a poor blind boy becomes the main context in which his talent and genius, as well as his heroin addiction, emerged. Here, the biopic convention essentially demands such a superficial analysis that de-emphasizes the racism and poverty and emphasizes the “internal” causes of Ray’s maladies.

The personal story of a man who is addicted to heroin for the same reason he’s addicted to music (and loves it more than his wife) almost serves to ‘justify’ the white naysayers who felt that R&B and soul music he was playing was “devil’s music.” Furthermore, the scene in which he takes a gospel standard, and secularizes it (“I Got A Woman”), makes a clear ideological choice in presenting the black gospel scene who resist this heroic ‘crossover’ moment that lead to what is now called classic rock as a bunch of reactionaries (hell, even the Beatles tried to cover “I Got A Woman”).

Such reductions and distortions of history show how these biopics push a despiritualized, commercial sense of American music that elevates a heroic, yet troubled, individual who can change (or at least provide a decorative soundtrack for) history. On the heels of this movie’s success, Walk The Line (2005) seemed consciously scripted with Ray in mind. Another “rags to riches” story of a southerner from a broken home (though he doesn’t become blind), who is haunted by and motivated to musical greatness (and drug addiction; again, the two are almost synonymous in this convention) to prove something to the parental figure who abandoned him, whether physically or emotionally (again, cut off from any serious dramatization of environmental factors like abject poverty or systematic racism).

This deeply Freudian under song to Walk The Line becomes one of the many things the movie Walk Hard (2007) brilliantly satirizes. Obviously, the director and screenwriters of Walk Hard felt something very similar to what I felt when watching Walk The Line, and one of the reasons Walk The Line did not achieve the success that Ray had was because it had taken Ray and crassly made it into even more of a formula…and audiences seemed to be getting hip. While Walk Hard is primarily a satire of Walk The Line, it reaches deeper to satirize many conventions of the bioptic genre. The “hero,” Dewey Cox is presented alone, in solitude, pausing before a long walk down a hall to a retrospective performance that would somehow sum up his life-work. After Walk Hard, I hoped we would never have to weather another scene like this, but it reappears in Get On Up, providing the narrative frame for the movie.

Life As Rise And Fall (and maybe redemption)

A biopic is ostensibly similar to a behind-the-music show in proposing a dividing line between the art and the life, but what does it mean to be “behind the music” when you put your life into your audience and to regular everyday people who can blow your mind each time you feel them dance at your shows? Hollywood loves to undress what it believes is the hubris of any musician who believes the power of music, of call and response, both live and recorded, can be bigger than life viewed as a story.

Here, Hollywood casts itself in the roll of Toto: Take that, you mighty and powerful OZ! We know you’re just a bumbling man from Nebraska slumming it in Oz, a kind of homesick imperialist who really just never wanted to grow up and be abandoned by mama like Citizen Kane.

Hollywood is so wedded to the conventions of the biopic that they exploit people’s love of music to lure people in, and in most cases fans of the music leave disappointed. It’s not that that the musical scenes in Get On Up are not good. As Odie Henderson points out, “Chadwick Boseman has done his dancing homework. Watching him perform, and listening to him perfectly nail Brown’s speaking voice are the true pleasures of Get on Up.  Unfortunately, the movie wastes this performance.”[1] Indeed, the biopic seems designed precisely to push an alien religion on those for whom music, especially black music, is often superior to, and wider than, a story--in particular, a rise and fall story of an isolated self.

The film doesn’t go quite as far as to have James Brown cry Rosebud with his dying breath, but we do get Citizen Cocaine, if not King Heroin, right from the get go. As Henderson brilliantly summarizes, Brown enters the movie “as a buffoon reeking of danger and insanity who is rendered harmless by his own comic ineptitude.” This “neutered, cartoonish,” yet nonetheless still threatening, version of him hangs over the whole movie.

Clearly the screenwriters, the Butterworth boys, felt that emphasizing these scenes set in 1988, only two years after the positive note on which his autobiography ended, was the most dramatic way they could introduce the character they call James Brown. Apparently, the directors and screen writers felt that this was the fall, the negative climax, and it can only (or most ‘realistically’) be explained by a superficial Freudian reading of the “family romance” of his childhood formative years. Thus, the plot of the movie becomes “how did he fall so low from such a height?”

In Get On Up, the scenes with his birth parents are overemphasized unless one is a Freudian or post-Freudian developmental psychologist. Brown’s autobiography is frank, and doesn’t dwell on his dad’s whoopings or inability to provide for him. Yet JB offers a wider context for his dad’s particular pathology. His dad had a temper about white people, but he was too submissive to express that to whites, so took it out on his son. Showing the young James witnessing his dad’s encounters with racist white folks could’ve made for great cinema, and dug into a truth much deeper than trying to fit the movie into the Ray and Walk Hard grid that puts Brown on the shrink’s couch when it’s not putting him on trial.

The post-Freudians, of course, have their system rigged so that they would call any other interpretation of childhood other than “primal foundational trauma” to be denial, and as long as (white) Hollywood continues to be dominated by this mindset it simply cannot register why JB devotes much more time on the largely positive relationship he had with his extended family in a brothel presided over by his aunt. The movie does devote some time on a touching scene with his aunt (her nurturing, her spiritual wisdom, her prophecy, and her pride in him as he makes his first money hustling for her before he ends up in prison as a teenager)—but it more insistently flashes back to the trauma presumably caused by his birth parents.

White Supremacy & Black Capitalism

Because JB understood his dad’s pathology against the backdrop of white supremacy, the movie’s erasure of this is suspect. It’s not that Get On Up entirely sweeps white supremacy under the rug. Little Richard and JB bond over how to deal with what Richard calls the white devil that runs the music business. This is a lesson JB would later apply in his relationship with his white manager, Ben Bart, affectionately called “Pop” by Brown (and played by “Blues Brother” Dan Ackroyd in the movie). These scenes are perhaps the film’s most intimate, and reveal some of JB’s chutzpah in dealing with the white music establishment (and provide a useful contrast with the scenes between Chuck Berry and Leonard Chess in Cadillac Records).

I’m glad the movie dramatized the scene in which James brilliantly explained why cutting out those who “Pops” calls the best big time promoters in the business and, instead, choosing to work with the local DJS, would make both client and manager more money….and, in addition, help the underpaid, exploited, DJS who were the lifeblood of the music industry (the filmmakers had to make the DJ white, but that’s no biggie; some were). James’ solution is a win/win situation that helps the local economy and helps bring democracy to the nation’s music culture!

The manager was skeptical, but JB’s wisdom prevails. This kind of insight into, and analysis of, the music industry is part of what makes JB’s autobiography such a delightful, engaging and even empowering read. It shows JB’s generous, populist, community oriented side—which is otherwise absent from the movie. Yet, once again, Get On Up has to frame this as a largely individual mere selfish attempt to make money and, like Berry Gordy, disrespectfully underpay his musicians. But can you really reduce his pubic service advertisements, his ownership of several radio stations, his James Brown Stamps, and the generosity of his enlightened self-interest to that?

Sure, he may have been too busy making music to really know how to run all the enterprises he started (just like The Beatles with their Apple Corp fiasco), but the movie makes it seem like it was merely about JB trying to dodge taxes! I’m not looking for a white-washed portrait of JB, stripped of his various contradictions that are touched on, for instance, in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ brilliant poem sequence (with photographs and footnotes for footwork), “My Dynamite Splits.” But I would at the very least like to see a movie that acknowledges that what was so great about James Brown was not merely the genius super bad musician and performer.

When I hear the cry in “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” about how man makes money to buy another man, and how man is lost in the wilderness and bitterness, it’s not just about little James and his personal hell, it’s about life in White man’s America, and one black man’s attempt to do something about it, an attempt that in its own way was as successful as any of the more radical spokesman and organizers of Black Power during this era. He may not have liberated the people, but his hard work liberated—and still can liberate--the spirit. There is little or no room for this in the ideological interpretation the Butterworth boys, Taylor and Jagger, promulgate in Get On Up!

“Closure: Walk Hard Style”

Though the movie touches on how important music was for JB in prison the first time around, as a kid where he lead a group “to sing for the lord,” it shows nothing but one horrific broken man scene during his 88-93 prison stay. It certainly shows nothing of the grassroots movement of fans and supporters who held “Free James Brown” dance parties across the country to fight the racist double standard in his 6 year sentence for nothing more than a “blue light” violation.

Despite the repeated testimony by those who were closer to him and visited him in prison during this period (like Tucker and music critic Dave Marsh), the directors try to render James Brown into a flawed tragic hero who couldn’t really relate to those closest to him, or even a villain, like Richard III (pushing away the loyal Bobby Byrd as Buckingham) into that isolation of the tragic individual that the genre of tragedy demands.

At least Walk The Line, could rely on the cliché of the MGM or Shakespearean comic happy ending, a love story that could inspire such songs Heidi Newfield’s “Do You Want A Love Like Johnny and June?” Like Johnny, James Brown was also deeply devoted to his wife and devastated by her death, but Get On Up makes no room for that, and in the process reduces his (temporary) split with Bobby Byrd to an argument over whose dick is bigger (“I could’ve had your wife”); Byrd’s marriage is presented as healthier and more loving than Brown’s because that fits the tragic larger than life cliché that underlies this movie’s portrayal of Brown. What makes Brown great is what makes him tragic. Larger than life becomes smaller than life; this isn’t what the audience demands, what the complicated truth demands, and it’s not what the music demands; it’s what the convention and the shrinks demand.

The movie does offer its little biopic cliché of redemption when JB gets out of jail in 1994, a comeback concert and a personal humbling before Byrd (“I neeeed you”). This is closure: Hollywood style: Walk Hard style; it’s touching, but ultimately trivial and tedious. I really wish JB could get on up today to tell a thing or two about the “honky hoedown” these directors and screenwriters tried to reduce him to, or even look Mick Jagger in the eye, and say, “you still making money ripping off black folks.” Maybe someday, when Jagger dies, there will be a bioptic made of him. After all, stories of the (Rolling) Stones mistreatment of women and drug abuse are at least as prevalent as much as JB’s, but I severely doubt they will play as central a part in such a movie.

In Get On Up, we return to that long walk down the hall, in which the larger than life character sees his life and career pass before him, a life reduced to the child’s need for ego-validation. In this light, you can listen to many of James Brown’s lyrics and see how much of an individualist he could be (in words), but that’s a persona he consciously developed, as he reminds us over and over again in his autobiography. Even the movie reminds us it was the white suits who wanted to change the name of the Famous Flames to elevate the solo artist. Sure, he’s a “greedy man.” Sure, “I got mine, don’t worry about his,” but listen to the sounds of the grooves, the collective unit, the package shows he put together: see everybody dancing. Join the dance (if they let you do it in the theatre, or better Get On Out of the theatre), and feel the unity—everybody working together in the name of soul, in the name of JAMES BROWN who contains multitudes.

Now pause and think about that experience for a second (even if it’s just a recording of a song by a dead man at a party or an aerobics class), and then think about what Hollywood—white Hollywood—is trying to tell you, sell you, about Life---not just James Brown’s life, not just the biopic convention, with no personal investment, not just the life of any public figure, but life in general. Is the soliloquy really more “authentic” than the dialogue? Is the community organizer really just a tortured individual? Is the so-called man behind the music really the deeper reality?

“Hollywood: “that’s how the white man sells himself to the world.”
                                                                                                      Judy Juanita, Virgin Soul

Critic Tanya Steele argues that Get On Up exhibits “the need for ‘Hollywood’ to situate itself in the lives of Black Americans without giving a Black Director the opportunity to tell the story.” White Hollywood has a long history of this, dating back to its origins with D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. While Get On Up doesn’t go so far as to celebrate the KKK, it presents a series of dubious “tropes that are supposed to relay that this is Blackness.”[2]

From its first scene, Get On Up puts James Brown on trial, looking at him through judgmental white eyes. As Bruce Tucker, co-author of James Brown’s autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, pointed out over 20 years ago: “for white audiences, even sympathetic ones, [JB’s] difference always threatens to become otherness—the raw, uninhibited, possessed exotic black Other of colonialist fantasy….Perfectly well-meaning people….talk to me about his troubles in tones usually reserved for the appreciation of Road Runner cartoons. It is clear that part of the price of the difference James Brown sought—and the otherness he didn’t---is to be treated like a cartoon character, capable of popping back into shape no matter how many anvils land on him. Or, in an only slightly more affectionate form, he is regarded as a child.” (xxii, xxv).

Get On Up relies on both interpretations, and it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are “well-meaning,” unconsciously racist, or purposely trying to debunk James Brown by “dwelling on James’ high-handedness with musicians, the reported domestic violence, and the problems that [in 1988] landed him in jail,” in Tucker’s words. In Get On Up, even these cartoonish portrayals cannot entirely neutralize the presentation of a strong, proud black man who is first introduced as threatening and potentially violent. And the movie is in many ways about the white culture of fear of the black male which Michael Moore memorably exposed in Bowling For Columbine, and presumption of violent until proven gentle often subliminally instilled in contemporary white consciousness.

However, comically portrayed, the fear on the faces of the white people in the film’s first scene is real, and implicitly justifies the harsh six-year sentence he received for his blue-light violation in 1988, entirely ignoring the racist double standard involved in his sentencing by relying on an unverified story of Brown shooting at a crowd. According to Get On Up, this apocryphal story is the first thing you need to know about James Brown. We may ask, by what standards this is great cinema?

These ruminations lead me to some heavy question: Is Get On Up a failed movie, or does it do exactly what it set out to do? Is it a bad movie that was genuinely intended to be a tribute to James Brown? Or is or is it bad for the same reasons it’s inherently racist?  Amiri Baraka writes, “our enemies have created our spokesmen” in reference to how white corporate culture has elevated the image of the “gangsta rapper” and package it to black folks. Hollywood couldn’t create James Brown, or even the image of JAMES BROWN. However, they can muscle their way into it with their money in his death.

Yet, Get On Up shows the bioptic as it is currently understood is a dead-end genre so based on a Euro-Westernized notion of a self-contained “self” that it simply cannot begin to sound the phenomenon, and ongoing legacy, of James Brown. If one must accept that JB indeed had a “downfall” after 4 decades of top ten hits, this is more likely due to the corporate takeover of the record industry than his own personal trauma; this becomes very clear reading his autobiography. Ultimately I concur with Tanya Steele that there are definitely black filmmakers “talented as f**k who could smash a James Brown bioptic” much better than Get On Up does. I firmly believe that such a movie could help revolutionize Hollywood as much as James’ Brown’s music was able to breathe life into and transform American music.

In the meantime, if you want to know about James Brown, read the autobiography, or check out all those less famous recordings he did (most of us have only scratched the surface of his oeuvre). There’s really no point seeing the movie unless you are interested in studying how Hollywood uses its shock and awe tactics to try to manipulate us with its frame and narrow world-view.

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