GET ON UP (director: Tate Taylor; screenwriters: Jez Butterworth/John-Henry Butterworth/based on a story by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Steven Baigelman; cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt; editor: Michael McCusker; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Chadwick Boseman (James Brown), Nelsan Ellis (Bobby Byrd), Dan Aykroyd (Ben Bart), Viola Davis (Susie Brown), Craig Robinson (Maceo Parker), Octavia Spencer (Aunt Honey), Lennie James (Joe Brown), Jill Scott (DeeDee), Tika Sumpter (Yvonne Fair), Jacinte Blankenship (wife number 1), Jamarion and Jordan Scott (Little James Brown); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brian Glazer/Mick Jagger/Victoria Pearman/Erica Huggins/Tate Taylor; Universal Pictures; 2014)
“A high energy and entertaining film, one that avoids standard biopic clichés.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Chadwick Boseman superbly played the reserved Dodgers Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in 42. In Get On Up, Chadwick overwhelms playing the high wired and prickly James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, who died in 2006 at 73.
The fine screenplay is by the British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. The directing is in the capable hands of Tate Taylor(“The Help”/”Chicken Party”/”Pretty Ugly People”), who shows he cares about the music above all else. Tate also gives the biopic a fresh look, as he tells Brown’s incredible rags to riches story by using a non-linear approach. The time line approach is replaced by following a smashing beat of its own pulse, which makes a dent in the conventional biopic but doesn’t completely remove it from being conventional. The negative about the pic’s non-linear approach is that the jumbled time line is hard to follow. It also skips over many events in Brown’s colorful and full life, leaving it incomplete. On the other hand, the reward is a high energy and entertaining film, one that avoids standard biopic clichés. It has no trouble capturing the legend’s rough childhood upbringing, his unique singing style, his lifetime anger and abrasiveness, his popularity among both black and white audiences, his volatile disposition, and his ambitious narcissistic career moves.
The pic opens in 1988, in Augusta, Georgia, at a mall site where Brown maintains a storefront business. It depicts the middle-aged Brown at one of his worst moments, when he threatens with a loaded rifle a roomful of insurance agents, one of whom accidentally used Brown’s private bathroom located in the same building. It cuts back and forth from here-on to Brown’s impoverished backwoods South Carolina childhood and continues following him when uprooted at 4 to rural Georgia, where he must deal with an abusive father (Lennie James) and a neglectful mother (Viola Davis). It then haphazardly covers some of the major incidents in his life that include his start in showbiz with a group called The Famous Flames and his subsequent successful career with him the boss.
In one scene it has Brown in 1968 flying into LBJ’s Vietnam war zone under heavy enemy fire to entertain American troops. Followed by the first of several sequences depicting Brown’s troubled childhood when he was abandoned by his parents and sent to live in a Georgia brothel operated by an aunt (Octavia Spencer). How he was jailed, at 17, for theft and served three years before paroled to the family of singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). The nice guy singer becomes Brown’s long-suffering best friend and musical collaborator until even he finally had enough of Brown’s antics and walks out following a 1971 concert in Paris. There’s a goofy scene with Brown and the Famous Flames outfitted in ski sweaters for a Frankie Avalon movie.
Other supporting actors of note include Jill Scott as his second wife DeeDee, and his good friend and loyal manager Ben Bart, excellently played by Dan Aykroyd.
By refusing to sugarcoat the faults of Brown and by showing him at his most arrogant, the pic gets points for not being a suck-up bio. Yet for all its rousing moments and Chadwick’s great performance (handles with ease Brown’s signature dance moves), there seems to be something lacking about its telling of the R&B legend’s story.It might be that it couldn’t capture the complexities of this very perplexing man. It left its subject only superficially developed and relied too much on letting the music tell his story.
REVIEWED ON 11/26/2014 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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