“Get On Up” Gets It Wrong


Get On Up, the biopic of the life of James Brown, could not exist without this place. The label that brought James Brown to fame, King Records, is of course Cincinnati’s legacy. And the man behind King, Syd Nathan, was for James Brown a father figure and sounding board who battled and brokered the singer’s success in the 1950s and ’60s.

Nowhere do the limitations of the movie seem more central than in its misguided depiction of King Records. It’s not that the picture, which for budgetary reasons shot most everything in small towns of the Mississippi Delta, never looks like Cincinnati. It also never looks like The Apollo Theater, or Augusta Georgia, either— and the notorious police chase of Brown’s pickup truck, which led to his imprisonment in 1988, is so low-budget and rural it seems to be a Dukes of Hazzard outtake.

The problem is the depiction of Syd Nathan as a bumptious racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Syd was a barrier-breaker who ran one of the few (if not the only) top-to-bottom integrated businesses in Cincinnati from the late 1940s on. He had the courage and vision to put blacks and whites together in the recording studio to make important country and R&B hits; when the African-American singer Little Willie John came to town to record, he stayed at Nathan’s home. But the defining scripted line the movie’s Syd speaks is one where he drops the N-word on Brown. In his few other scenes, Nathan is depicted by the writers as a buffoon who could only have succeeded by accident. I lay this problem at the feet of the two British brothers who wrote the script. Born after the civil rights battles had been fought, raised far from places like Natchez or Cincinnati, Jez And John-Henry Butterworth offer a familiar British take on American race relations; cartoonish, simplified, received.  They seem to think their caricatures are proof of their good intentions. Instead they call their broader intentions into question.

Syd Nathan would have chewed them out from North Avondale to Coney Island.

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RJ Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, a contributor to Details, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer for Spin, and has written for GQ, New York Times Magazine, Elle, and Men's Vogue. His book The One: The Life and Music of James Brown was among the New York Times' "100 Notable Books of 2012."