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Friday, August 1, 2014
Get On Up
James Brown Biopic, Moving At The Speed Of Dynamite
Boseman (left) as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd in Tate Taylor's
biopic "Get On Up".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
A James Brown fan, I had great trepidation when the filming of "Get On Up" was
announced last year. Who was directing again? Who would be in it?
How much of Mr. Brown's womanizing, drug abuse and domestic violence would be
shown? How much of the Godfather Of Soul's black pride,
self-determination, political activism, confidence and independence would hit
the big screen?
I can say that all of these are shown mostly in proportion in Tate
"The Help" Taylor's biopic on the life of James Brown. The
results? A dynamic, entertaining and dizzying portrait of Mr. Dynamite.
The films speeds by like one of the hyperenergetic extravaganzas of the showman
himself. Mr. Brown
died in 2006 on Christmas Day, and Mr. Taylor and the Butterworth
screenwriting brothers John-Henry and Jez resurrect him to the big screen
respectfully, capturing the essence, dignity, confidence and heart of a true
American legend and hero.
"Get On Up" is a kaleidoscopic look at key events shaping Mr. Brown's life, from
his hardscrabble days as a child under the thumb of an abusive father and
abandoning mother, to his emergence as a singular music genius who
revolutionized soul, r&b and rock, to the iconic figure who set an unattainable
standard the music world still struggles to grasp and emulate, to the relentless
perfectionist who became imperfect.
Mr. Brown's deep, profound global influence on music as we fully appreciate it
today endures, and "Get On Up", produced in part by the Brown-influenced Mick
Jagger and Brian Grazer, grasps and conveys this and the intellectual, spiritual
presence of an artist at the peak of invention. Mr. Taylor utilizes parts
of James Brown's life as revolving, continuous, ever-present markers fueling his
success and persona. This approach works for the ambitious undertaking the
director embarks upon. Mr. Taylor succeeds more often than not, though
there isn't the depth and soul on a consistent basis that a figure the magnitude
of Mr. Brown requires.
Thankfully "Get On Up" doesn't succumb to an overemphasis on flamboyance and
indulgence that other popular figures are often flummoxed by in biopic
portrayals. Michael Mann's "Ali", for example, was drowned out by the
title figure's womanizing and gift for gab, while his political stands in the
film were tamed. Here Mr. Brown as an American treasure is given a little
greater latitude, respect and standing by Mr. Taylor, who casts "Help" alumnae
Viola Davis and Olivia Spencer in small but key roles.
On occasion "Get On Up", which was approved by Mr. Brown's estate, fails to
pause appreciably enough to bask in its hero's triumphs and political activism
but it never fails to remind us where James Brown came from and what made him
who he was. We glimpse Mr. Brown's contemporaries and forerunners,
including Little Richard. One of their interactions, at a diner, is one of
the few weaknesses of Mr. Taylor's film, a scene that rings sensationalist and
A number of white directors have fallen afoul to tarnishing or compromising
black musical powerhouses by disproportionately submerging them in their vices
on film. Clint Eastwood did this in "Bird". To an extent this
occurred in "Lady Sings The Blues". Taylor Hackford was a marginal
exception to this vice-sinking with "Ray". Granted, an artist's
peccadilloes and idiosyncratic signatures are easy big screen bait for curious
and salacious-seeking if not unaware audiences. Some filmmakers however,
underestimate the older viewing public's treasured (and sometimes sanctified)
memories of their heroes, and do so at their own film's peril.
On the other hand, any film that fails to depict a revered legend's flaws and
complexities runs the high risk of exalting a false, sanitized figure, making
for a disingenuous, inauthentic portrayal. "Get On Up" straddles this
balance well enough, making James Brown entirely human, even if some surface
aspects surrounding him linger.
Admittedly, it's a challenge packing an entertaining film with the richness of
character, experience and philosophy a real-life legendary icon commands.
There's never consensus or universal satisfaction. "Get On Up" needed a
little more depth and development in Mr. Brown's foundation and expounding on
his ideas. The film is largely concerned with its feel-good determinism
and music show reverie that at times the film is a concert rather than a
Above all, "Get On Up" defines Mr. Brown through his music, calibrating its
story with eras of his music monikers such as "The Hardest Working Man In
Showbusiness" and "Soul Brother No. 1". The artist's political activism is
promoted not as its own separate entity but through his music, with songs like
"Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)". "Get On Up" does probe the
politics of a racially segregated 1960s America and exploitive white record
company executives and managers who profited off many highly-acclaimed and
beloved black music megastars. In the film Mr. Brown is his own best
counter-response to this practice.
The performances in "Get On Up" are very good, notably Nelsan Ellis as Mr.
Brown's front man vocalist and long-time close friend Bobby Byrd. Chadwick
Boseman is superb as James Brown. He infuses the Hardest Working Man In
Show Business with the certitude, charisma, industry and business acumen that
cemented him as such a persistent, unmistakable force on the world stage.
Mr. Boseman's performance isn't impersonation. He injects naturalism and a
staggering ability to turn on a dime the way Mr. Brown himself did with
boundless energy and a demand of second-to-none quality, uniqueness and
originality. Mr. Boseman uses his character's individual status,
revolutionizing it into positive can-do triumph and brand. It's audacious,
Mr. Boseman, a rising star who starred as Brooklyn Dodgers baseball legend
Jackie Robinson in last year's poor, underwhelming
has arrived as a bona fide presence who I hope gets to show off his acting
talent in films beyond true-life-sized figures. He will flourish.
There's a chance he'll be on the shortlist of consideration for an Oscar
nomination in 2015. The memory of this film may have faded by then but his
work in it will not. Watching "Get On Up" is pure foot-tapping, riveting,
dance-in-the-aisles pleasure. I wish the film had been longer than its two
hours and 20 minutes.
With: Jill Scott, Aunjanue Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson, Tariq Trotter,
Aloe Blacc, Allison Janney.
"Get On Up" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of
America for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent
situations. The film's running time is
two hours and 21 minutes.
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