Get on UP

Aug 6, 2014

Lively biopic of the godfather of soul, James Brown.

Get on Up

Grade: B+

Director: Tate Taylor (The Help)

Screenplay: Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game)

Cast: Chadwick Boseman (42), Nelsan Ellis (The Help)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 138 min.

by John DeSando

"Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" James Brown

That song encapsulates both the indomitable spirit of the godfather of soul,  James Brown, played convincingly in Get On Up (bad title) by Chadwick Boseman. It’s a biopic that allows Boseman to underplay the hero (while “Ray” gave too much scope to Jamie Foxx). It’s a successful bio where the depiction allows the subject to breathe rather than just move around like a god.

I enjoyed Get On UP more than Walk the Line, where Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash was too tortured for an enjoyable, relaxed look at a super-human artist.  Sure, Mr. Dynamite has his drugs, run-ins with the law and, spousal abuse (those are givens and understated in this film), but director Tate Taylor lards the movie with so much music, I felt I was at a concert. Like the generous songs in the recent Jersey Boys, the funk is first, the foibles secondary. 

Not to say Taylor didn’t downplay Brown’s excesses; it’s just that he seems to love the gyrations and gravel voice so much as to give us more music than the stormy personal life. We do, after all, witness in the opening scene from 1988 the PCP-influenced incident that took 3 years of his life in prison.  

When Taylor delves into the personal, he takes care to make it real. For instance, when his mother (Viola Davis) returns later in life after she left him in his boyhood, he faces her down for the opportunist she is now. Although he sends her away, the camera tells us without excess the pain it causes him, just a close up of a man coiled and falling after he has cut his mother loose.

This otherwise good biopic slips into a clichéd intercutting between youth and maturity—for me, in a biopic the linear story works better. Some of those flashbacks are repetitive, and some creative transitions are just that—imaginative but superfluous.

The juxtaposing of present and past suggests cause and effect at best questionable. Only when Brown witnesses soul music in church can a connection with the future be concluded. Otherwise, a child neglected and treated wrongly may aggressively direct his own life, but not necessarily because of a flawed childhood.

As for the rich mine of racial challenges, some is explored when Brown exclaims in his ski sweater for “Ski Party,” "Oh, hell no — I'm in a honky hoedown!" The humor does much better than beatings and braying about inequality. But, heck, what am I talking about? Inequality is the name of the genius’s game: He is better than the rest of us. And thank goodness this never boring film remembers Brown’s gifts.

“I got you. I feel good.” James Brown