Dr. Donna Copeland’s
CHADWICK BOSEMAN NELSAN ELLIS DAN AYKROYD
VIOLA DAVIS JILL SCOTT OCTAVIA SPENCER
GET ON UP
The musical genre isn’t faring so well this year. Tate Taylor, director of The Help, gathers many of his previous co-stars to recreate the life and times of James Brown. Unlike Jersey Boys, Taylor does actually cast real actors here. Unfortunately, he uses that same actor-speaking-directly to the audience technique that constantly reminds the audience they are watching a film, thus disallowing the viewer to get absorbed in the material. For all the famous faces in the film, including Oscar winner Spencer, it’s Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 last year, that delivers the best performance. Similar to Jersey Boys, Get on Up isn’t going to create any new fans of the material. Unlike Ray or Walk the Line, this film doesn’t break any new ground within the genre.
Growing up under dire and trying circumstances, James Brown (Boseman) went from a windowless shack in the woods of Georgia, abandoned by his mother, to the famous stages of the world, delivering soul music in a way people had never heard it. Music was everywhere Brown looked: on the kitchen table as a child, in the prison as a teenager, local churches; it was inescapable for him. Marital problems, tax issues, and his need to control everyone around him led Brown to a dark place that music helped him escape.
The Help was a crowd pleaser, loved nearly universally for its cheeky script, award winning performances and the fact that it's a film much like it’s Steel Magnolias / Fried Green Tomato’s counterparts that hold up on repeat and generational viewings. Taylor might have been the wrong choice for this project, but the larger problem here is in the editing of the film that pushes and pulls the audience through Brown’s career in a less than clever manner. It jumps around assumingly using flashbacks from the past to explain conditions and feelings Brown experiences in present day. Ray was about overcoming addiction in many forms, Walk the Line was a love story, but Get on Up is just about James Brown being James Brown.
Walk the Line was an inspired title taken from a Johnny Cash song while Get on Up sounds like the fifth installment of those Step Up films. So often musicals forget they are feature films and spend much of the film singing the running time away. Many of the hits are played in their entirety, as if Taylor couldn’t pick just a few. Never more so than the performance of Soul Power, where it seems to last forever. Knowing how to edit a musical biopic is key with so much material about a legend needing to be squeezed into a two hour period. The best scene in the entire film occurs following the death of Martin L. King Jr., when Brown stops his live show to demand members of the audience get off the stage. It’s a scene that showcases Brown’s understanding of his own power and influence during that time, a theme that should have found its way into more scenes.
Final Thought – The film may have soul, but it certainly lacks structural rhythm.
By: Dustin Chase
The life of James Brown, “Godfather of Soul”, was a complicated one, fraught with all kinds of personal, professional, and legal troubles; yet also blessed with fame and fortune. He started life with inattentive parents and an abusive father (with the latter’s having a lifelong influence on his own), but was taken in after a fashion by an aunt who ran a brothel. On the positive—probably life-saving—side, the aunt recognized that he was smart and a hard worker, and encouraged him as no one else had, telling him outright that he was predestined to be famous and wealthy. He apparently took this to heart, because predestination (God’s will) becomes a motif in this Biopic, Get on Up.
The film is packed with important events, incidents, and achievements of Brown, and the filmmakers (Tate Taylor, director; Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, script) were successful in their selections of what to include, which, along with clever editing (Michael McCusker) makes a most interesting story. Of course, having Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger as two of the producers must have helped. The viewer is able to come away with a fine sense of who the man was, what he faced, what he accomplished, and how he made it happen through his considerable talent and hard work, along with the crucial support of bandsmen and managers, particularly Bobby Byrd and Ben Bart.
Although the incidents of violence and conflict are troubling, the film is enjoyable, particularly if one is into R&B/soul/funk music. Chadwick Boseman carries off playing the ever-changing adult Brown in all of his glory, his antics, his playfulness, his acumen, and his temper tantrums. Dan Aykroyd’s performance as his manager Ben Bart is probably one of his best. As his mother and aunt, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, light up the screen as always with their usual uncanny acting abilities. Nelson Ellis as Bobby Byrd, the loyal band mate who probably never received as much credit as he deserved (being in Brown’s shadow) makes him very appealing. The children, Jamarion and Jordan Scott, who play the young James Brown should also be mentioned for quality renditions.
A rewarding film for James Brown fans especially.
By Donna R. Copeland