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Get On Up (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 11

Get On Up

Get On Up

GET ON UP (2014)

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Jill Scott, Craig Robinson, Keith Robinson, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Smith, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Josh Hopkins, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Nick Eversman, J.D. Evermore, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, John Benjamin Hickey and Allison Janney.

Screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.

Directed by Tate Taylor.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  138 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

It takes a certain amount of finesse to make a biographical film about a person who in general was not very likable.  Yes, everyone knows that James Brown was a huge musical trailblazer, but almost as many people know that the man himself was far, far from being a perfect human being.

Therefore, Get On Up has the difficult task of portraying the man’s huge accomplishments as a musician and a civil rights advocate, but not having them overshadowed by the fact that the guy was more than a bit of a dick.

The film does this job mostly admirably.  This is not exactly a warts-and-all biographical account of the man’s life – while they do allow his flaws to be seen somewhat, the film mostly underplays Brown’s problems with drugs, women and the law.

James Brown was a very complicated man who lived a very complicated life.

Luckily, the film has an incredibly capable actor to portray the man.  Chadwick Boseman will have to be careful not to become typecast as black icons: he has now played both Jackie Robinson (in 42) and James Brown in his short career as a leading actor.  However, he easily has the skills to play such vaunted characters.  While this character is much less sympathetic than his earlier portrayal of Robinson, Boseman is able to capture the dichotomies of the man – brilliant singer, smart businessman, loving father, abusive husband, sometimes giving friend, sometimes major jerk and eventually drug-addled parody of himself.

It is somewhat fascinating to observe the forces that changed a wide-eyed young boy into a rather selfish and often cruel man.

And, yes, James Brown did have a damned hard childhood.  He was abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis) as a small boy – shown in the film in an honestly kind of confusing scene where his mother is leaving his father and says she can’t take care of the child and the father yells at her that she better not leave the boy with him, until she agrees to return to get the boy and the dad then refuses to let her take him.

Soon afterwards, his dad left James behind, too, dropping him to live at a local brothel whose Madame (Octavia Spencer) agreed to look after the boy.  As a young man he gets into trouble with the law, getting sentenced to 10 years in juvie for stealing a suit.

Brown’s main, long-lasting relationship was with band mate Bobby Byrd [Nelsan Ellis], as is explored in the film.  Their relationship was certainly problematic, and for a change the film does not shy away from this major wart on Brown’s character.  Byrd was supposedly Brown’s best friend.  Byrd single-handedly got Brown out of jail and into the music business.  In return for his decades of help and loyalty, Brown essentially held Byrd down: underpaying him, berating him, getting pissed when Byrd showed any musical ambition that was not subservient to Brown’s own needs.

Get On Up also slightly overplays Brown’s role in the civil rights battles – the dude was a Republican and was good friends with Strom Thurmond, for Christ’s sake….  No, I don’t in any way underestimate the hardships that he experienced to become a star and stay one in a world where the deck was stacked against him.  However, if you look at his dealings with his own band, you realize that he was not completely above exploiting those below him.  James Brown was out for himself, always.

The film shows the famous studio recording of Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud!)” as a soulful meeting of the minds and an ethnic connection with a group of young black children singing backing vocals.  While I understand why that would be the picture the film wants to share, in the actual recording session most of the children who sang “I’m black and I’m proud” weren’t actually black.  There were mostly whites and Asians in that group of Los Angeles school kids that did the backing vocals.  This is just another little example of the difference between James Brown the film wanted to create and the actual life of the man.

The film opens up, oddly enough, at the low point of Brown’s life.  In 1988, middle-aged, drug-addled and dressed in a horrible track suit, Brown held a group of white seminar goers hostage by a rifle when he found that someone had used his private bathroom in the office.  The movie, which hops around in time wildly, does not return to this until near the end, dramatizing Brown’s high-speed chase with the police.  Yet, other than showing him in prison, the film does not feel the need to explore this any further.  (Did he spend two days or five years in prison?  The film never says.  Actually, he served two-and-a-half years of a six-year term, but the film would just as soon you don’t remember that.)

However, despite the fact that Get On Up is a somewhat sanitized version of Brown’s life and career, Bozeman’s performance and the musical numbers largely make the film worth seeing.  Yes, there is probably a better movie to be made about the fascinating, contradictory human being that was James Brown, but Get On Up at least touches on some of the greatest hits of the hardest working man in show business.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 4, 2015.

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