Get On Up Isn't Pretty, but Captures the Essence of James Brown
- Friday, August 01, 2014
Release Date: August 1, 2014
Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations)
Genre: Biography, Drama, Music
Run Time: 138 minutes
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis
“You did right by yourself,” James Brown (Chadwick Boseman, 42) tells another character. “Ain’t no other way to live.” This biopic of The Godfather of Soul shows us the good (mostly his music) and the bad (just about everything else) in the life of a man who was arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
It’s not a pretty story. Born to dirt-poor parents, “Little Junior” is handed over to Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a madam who puts him to work as a barker to entice passing soldiers with descriptions of the “girls” inside. But this is no sweet little tale of ‘poor boy from the country makes good.’ Throughout his life, his talent was at war with fear and business acumen fought with ego. Brown was insecure and ugly with it, abusing his band until they walked out in disgust and pushing away anyone who dared care about him. He’s not all bad, just single-minded in his conviction that he always knew best—and a number of times, he was right.
“No one’s trying to paint a picture of a perfect man here,” director Tate Taylor said, “because anyone who’s perfect is not going to be very entertaining. James Brown had a crazy life, and we want people to feel it.” And feel it we do. Get On Up is not your typical birth-to-grave biography. It’s more emotional profile than life history. The story jumps from one time period to three more faster than you can say “I feel good.” It’s a little spastic and occasionally confusing but it certainly keeps the intensity set on high.
The director seems overly fond of extreme closeups, perhaps trying to emphasize the intimacy of the storytelling. It’s a good thing Boseman has such an expressive face. Bone-deep heartache shows in his eyes with no words necessary. He does occasionally use words to talk directly to the audience, a device that (kind of) helps move the story along and (kind of) breaks the flow at the same time.
Of course no film about James Brown would be complete without music and the soundtrack to Get On Up will have audiences dancing in their seats. It’s the real deal; that’s the James Brown you hear. You’ll hear a lot of him, too, which is no bad thing. The costumes, by Oscar®-nominated costume designer Sharen Davis, are things of beauty, from Mr. Brown’s shiny gold jumpsuit to his sharp suits and snazzy shoes. We see a lot of his shoes because the camera often focuses on his feet—and quite right, too. His dance moves were legendary and add a lot of fun of the film. Kudos to Bozeman for pulling off some highly complicated choreography.
But costumes and dance moves are trappings; the real beauty is in the performances. Brown’s longtime friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is the epitome of wounded loyalty until even he just can’t take it anymore. Dan Akroyd is so laid-back in his role as Brown’s manager he almost disappears into it. Brown’s longsuffering wife (Jill Scott) is mostly a match for her man’s mercurial moods, while his mom (Viola Davis) also suffers much, including one of the most painful reunions ever.
As for the main character, “I wanted my performance to be an interpretation, not an imitation,” Bozeman said. “I think an imitation makes fun of the person at a certain level, but an interpretation gets to the spirit or essence of who the person is.” That’s a good description of this film as a whole. Get On Up may leave a lot of gaps unfilled, but it does seem to capture the essence of James Brown.
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