It’s all there. The riffs, the shoes that swivel maniacally as though greased, the slurrified words, the clipped throaty growls. But Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, the biopic of soul-funk innovator and icon James Brown, ups the ante by letting us see the legend living out what the movie’s title promises. Brown did “get on up,” remarkably so, when his early Saturnine circumstances of deprivation gave him no reasons to be optimistic.
Using a non-linear approach, Get On Up first shows us Brown (Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown from his late teens onward) in his mid-50s, congratulating a woman by saying, “You did right by yourself.” The movie then demonstrates how Brown did it all by himself, too, never paying much heed to others’ opinions. “Don’t tell me how long I can be funky,” he spits out, decimating an antagonist.
Left by his mother (Viola Davis) to be cared for by his violent father (Lennie James), and then dumped on another caretaker (Octavia Spencer), Brown endured a childhood that gave him little sense of mooring. As a young man, he finds himself in jail, facing a long prison term for having swiped a three-piece suit. There, he has chance meeting with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), a gospel singer and musician who gets him out of prison, and subsequently becomes his best friend and trusted ally but always knowing – and accepting – that his new buddy was destined to be the front man.
In one of Brown’s many “seize the opportunity” moments – all of James Brown’s triumphs seem to have come from such carpe diem turns – he renames their music group the Flames. Practicality, the hallmark of Saturn, rules: even the anti-church vibes of a pompadour hair style becomes, says Brown, the hair’s “rising up to the Lord.”
Although Brown was, by birth, a Taurus – it rules the voice and the finer, sensual things in life – the movie focuses on the driving force of archetypal Saturn towards accomplishment and being the master of one’s destiny. Clearly Brown was CEO of his own band (eventually his players became employees) and of the empire he managed to create by eliminating the middle man to ensure more money funneled into his own pocket.
In the face of his relentless ambition, it’s no wonder Brown became known as the hardest working man in show business who, as the movie points out, learned from his manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) that there’s a distinction between the show and the business.
But one doesn’t see Get On Up for a lesson on business shrewdness, although Brown’s strategy to pay “the cost to beat the boss” is central to the narrative. The reason to watch is for Chadwick Boseman’s electric ownership of Brown’s gruff earthiness and affinity for a beat – again, Saturn’s domain – that gushed from some magical, internal reservoir. As Brown says, “You go backwards, you’re dead.” He chose vertical.
Archetype: Musician, Visionary, CEO
Astrology Archetype: ♄ (Saturn)