GET ON UP Film Review
Nate Taylor’s well-directed Get On Up is a 138-minute biopic about “The Godfather of Soul”, James Brown. Features about actual persons often suffer by not explaining the actions and behavior of their subjects, which is especially frustrating in movies about tortured artistes who act in self destructive ways. For example, in the otherwise excellent 2000 biopic Pollock, with its director Ed Harris depicting the action painter, Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism, abusive treatment of women, etc., is explained away with a line of dialogue or two while he’s strolling on a beach and refers to his unhappy childhood.
Well, that of course is “Freud 101”, but in Get On Up co-screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth provide details from James Brown’s (the stellar Chadwick Boseman) childhood that serve to explain and provide insight into the singer’s violent behavior, as well as into his talent and success as a singer. After a flash forward to a later criminal episode, the film progresses, more or less, in chronological order, but with frequent flashbacks that portray Brown’s turbulent childhood and life/career trajectory. The film also creatively includes scenes wherein Brown addresses the viewer in a pseudo-doc, “you-are-there” manner, and takes us into his thought process while Brown is performing, which are illuminating as well as imaginative.
As a boy growing up near Augusta, Georgia, in the 1930s, James witnessed domestic abuse, which caused his mother, Susie Brown (the great Viola Davis, who was Oscar-nommed for playing another anguished mother in 2008’s Doubt and for 2011’s Help, which was helmed and written for the screen by Tate Taylor) to abandon James. He’s then raised in a brothel by its madam, Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer, who scored the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for The Help and also excelled as Oscar Grant mom in 2013’s Fruitvale Station).
All the fame and fortune on Earth can’t compensate for a troubled childhood like this -- and it doesn’t. The singer who performed, composed and wrote the lyrics for 1965’s hit I Feel Good didn’t always feel quite so good. Brown’s talent and drive propelled him to the top of the charts, yet he still beat his wife DeeDee (Jill Scott, who starred in the good fun Botswana-set HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), fined his band members for minor infractions and otherwise mistreated these musicians, who are also his employees. The driving beat of Brown’s funkadelic music and his frenetic stagecraft often gave form to and expressed his inner demons through musical sublimation of tortured impulses.
Brown was, well, funky and and Chadwick Boseman -- who portrayed another African American icon in 42, the 2013 movie about Jackie Robinson -- captured this, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in this psychologically nuanced biopic. Boseman uncannily looks and moves like Brown, although according to the New York Times’ review, “Brown’s real voice, which never sounds dubbed, is used in remixes of his original recordings.”
Activist preacher and MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a sort of Brown protégé wrote in his New York Daily News review: “Chadwick Boseman really captured James Brown’s determination, his unstoppable independence. Through him, you get a real sense of what drove James Brown and the pain he lived with. James was a very lonely person because he was abandoned by his mother and father as a kid. I knew all the stories about his childhood and they’re very well captured in the film. James and I bonded because my father also abandoned my family when I was a kid.”
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Unlike in Taylor’s The Help the role racism played in shaping Brown is not, in this reviewer’s assessment, front and center in Get On Up. Of course, astute observers can place Brown’s childhood in segregated Georgia and his subsequent experiences in the Jim Crow South and white majority culture dominated America into a racial/sociological context. But this isn’t hammered home in the film; it’s subtext to be read between the lines.
Race is directly dealt with in the sequence wherein after Dr. King’s shooting, with that “the-show-must-go-on” show biz ethos, Brown goes ahead with a scheduled concert in Boston. Although for some reason the film doesn’t specifically point this out, I believe Boston was one of America’s few urban centers that didn’t erupt in riots after Dr. King’s liquidation. Ironically, although he himself could be violent, much to his credit, when the chips were down, James Brown rose to the occasion and prevented violence.
Brown went on to record “I’m Black and I’m Proud” in a studio with a chorus of African American children. Although at the time this Caucasian critic had considered Brown to be a cultural avatar of the Black Pride and Consciousness movement, the song and its significance is glossed over. Around this period Brown also eschewed conking his hair (something Rev. Al apparently still hasn’t) and started sporting an Afro -- although this might have been a marketing decision to keep up with the changing times, rather than a nationalist statement.
One of Brown’s most affectionate onscreen relationships is with his agent Ben Bart, well played by Dan Aykroyd (the former SNL star also appeared in 1989’s racially sensitive Driving Miss Daisy).The two develop a true friendship, as well as a working business relationship. The latter, BTW, is enhanced through Brown’s intuitive business smarts; for Brown getting the green seemed to be his version of Black Power. From his private jet to a stereotypical Cadillac to bling-bling, Brown helped set the mode for the rather appalling materialism celebrated by many rappers, as well as the thug life persona.
BTW, and now a word from our sponsor: While this may sound politically incorrect to say, when African American celebrities and, ahem, athletes who are in the public eye purportedly commit violent acts, white bigots regard this as confirmation of their racist profiling of Blacks as being predisposed to brutality, violence and crime. Although Brown was sometimes guilty of being “Exhibit A” as (according to the film) a high profile violent Black criminal, he was also aware that Black performers had to “represent.” In any case, being an ultra-talented, rich (if owing back taxes), famous VIP is still no excuse for, you know, beating your wife. There is simply never an excuse for domestic abuse -- although Get On Up sensitively explains its roots in terms of Brown’s traumatizing experiences growing up. (The point being made here is NOT that Blacks are inherently brutal -- they’re not -- but that violence allegedly committed by noteworthy Blacks reinforces racist perceptions prejudiced whites and other non-Blacks may already hold.)
Other fines performances are by Nelsan Ellis, as Brown’s longtime band mate and friend Bobby Byrd. It’s great to see the actor who is so fab as Lafayette on HBO’s True Blood series finally with some hair on his head! Brandon Smith has an inspired cameo as Little Richard, whose encounter with Brown is quite interesting. The Rolling Stones’ brief intersection with Brown is rather humorous, especially considering the fact that Mick Jagger -- whose fancy footwork was clearly inspired by Brown -- is one of the movie’s producers.
Overall, Get On Up is a challenging, complex portrait of a complicated artist with, but of course, fabulous musical and dance numbers. This feature about “the hardest-working man in show business” is surely the hardest working biopic on the silver screen. And along with the upcoming Hendrix feature Jimi: All is By My Side and the sly post-racial comedy Dear White People, Get On Up is riding the cinematic wave of Black-themed of movies surging the theaters.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.)