Get On Up – Review

Posted: August 1, 2014 by MichaelSmithNC in All, Movie Review, Movies, Trailers
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James Brown was a musical icon; a true artistic revolutionary. He was an innovator in regards to his musical style and a genius when it comes to the live performance. He overcame circumstances that had him born into extreme poverty to a violently dysfunctional family with little opportunity for education or success. He found success in a time when black people were struggling for equality in America. His story is a rags to riches story that we all can be proud of.

That is, if you can bring yourself to overlook the pattern of domestic abuse, prison sentences, and crazy drug use that also made up a huge part of his life.

Get on Up is a biographical story of James Brown produced by Mick Jagger (of the Rolling Stones) and Bryan Grazer. Tate Taylor, who most recently directed the acclaimed movie The Help, was brought in to direct a screenplay written by the team of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth; The Edge of Tomorrow was their most recent work. Fresh off of his performance as Jackie Robinson in 42, Chadwick Boseman was cast in the role of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

Biographical stories are often difficult to get “right” when making them into movies. Some people have stories that are incredibly interesting, but don’t translate well when put on screen. Other stories are just too complicated to make into a movie without having to really get “creative” with the subject matter. I think that the life story of James Brown is one of those stories.

What did the movie get right?

Chadwick Boseman is amazing in the role of Brown. He perfectly pulled off the appearance of the icon; down to the protruding lower jaw and varying hair styles that defied the laws of genetics. His physical performance was also noteworthy; the dances moves and general mannerisms that James Brown made so famous looked perfect. In the opening and closing sequences, we see the silhouette of Boseman walking through a poorly lit tunnel on the way to the stage, the way he walks, the way his hands and fingers twitch, and the overall swagger that he conveys screams, “I am James Brown.”

Nelsan Ellis, of HBO’s True Blood, filled the role of Bobby Byrd. Ellis and Boseman had a great on-screen chemistry that led to some dynamic scenes of the two of them performing Brown’s stage routines of the 60’s. He also served as the anchor, or balance, to the often over the top performance requirements that were required of Boseman.

Dan Akroyd played Brown’s longtime promotional/management partner, Ben Bart. Akroyd, who is best known for his comedic roles, was a pleasant surprise in the dramatic role. Although, Akroyd did end up being a source of comedic relief as his character developed.

What did the movie get wrong?

If the intent of Get on Up is to be a movie about James Brown the musical icon, then mission accomplished. The story depicts his start of being discovered by Bobby Byrd and his gospel quintet The Gospel Starlghters, the group that eventually morphed into The Famous Flames, in the early 1950s. It then progresses through the Mr. Dynamite era of the early 1960s when Brown found his first success as a “solo” act. The transition into Soul Brother No. 1 where he introduced the world to his sound and style that would eventually be referred to as Funk Music was also well done. As the story progresses into the 1970s and the time of The Godfather of Soul you see his steady decline and eventual fall from relevance in music. As the movie ends you see his return to the musical scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s that followed his last prison stint that he rode until his death in 2006.

Throughout the entire story, Brown is portrayed as the consummate performer and demanding perfectionist when it came to his shows and bands. What you don’t see really see is the rampant use of PCP and cocaine that took over his life in the 80’s. His first arrest and imprisonment were well covered, but the 15+ times that he was arrested before his most famous one in 1988 are all ignored. His history of domestic violence was also barely referenced. As a matter of fact, the wife that he abused the most, Adrienne Rodriguez, isn’t mentioned at all in the whole movie. Overall, many of the negative parts of his life were completely glossed over if even referenced at all. It was a story with a singular vision of “James Brown the musician” that largely ignored “James Brown the troubled man.”

As I left the theatre after seeing the screening, I was initially impressed with what I saw. The performances of Boseman’s, and the rest of the cast, really stuck out in my mind. The music was great, I don’t know how much post-production was needed to get it to the point where it is, but it sounded awesome. The direction was solid; the way Tate was able distinguish between the various eras of Brown’s career and also reference his history was very effective. Even with all of those positives, I just can’t seem to get past the oversights and glossing over of the darker parts of Brown’s life. The story, as entertaining as it is, just feels dishonest.

I am not going to say you should skip this movie, because, in reality it is really good if you can suspend your knowledge of history for 2 hours. But, if you are the type that needs accuracy and thorough authenticity in this type of movie, it might be a bit rough.





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