Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
"James is on!" I can still hear my dad yelling across the house whenever the legendary James Brown would show up on some show, because dad loved him some James Brown, be it on Johnny Carson or Midnight Special or Solid Gold or one of the myriad of variety shows we had on back in the day.  Want a quick education?  Go to the You Tube and watch some old Midnight Specials… all the knowledge you will ever need about everything.  The funny thing about my dad yelling out about Mr. Brown being on TV was that nobody else in the house really cared that James was on.  What can I tell you, my mom liked crooners such as Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra… James definitely wasn't that… my older brother was into whatever was cool back in the late 70's, a little past Mr. Brown's prime time, I was too young to really care, but always came to dad's side to keep him company and watch that angry looking little man do his thing.  Now several years after his death, we have a biopic on the life of James Brown, one that features some of the best music you will ever want to hear and an earthshattering performance from Chadwick Boseman.  But do I know more about James Brown than I did before I saw this movie?  Not much, not really.

Director Tate Taylor goes all Quentin Tarantino on us with his film as he plays with the timeline since the first time we meet James Brown (Boseman), he looks a little unhinged and he's holding a shotgun in the middle of some kind of seminar, mighty upset that someone has dropped a deuce in his bathroom.  James is not in a good place at this moment.

Then our timeline takes us back a bit to little bitty James Brown and the combustible relationship that existed between his mom Susie (Viola Davis) and his father Joe (Lennie James), and it's a wonder how James survived considering these people that he had for a mom and dad were, to be conservative, terrible.
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The story will then follow James being abandoned by his mother, dropped off by his father at a local brothel, getting thrown in jail for an eleven year sentence for stealing a suit before he is rescued by a man who will become his benefactor and lifelong friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). 

It doesn't take long for James to realize that he is one with the funk, and he and Bobby form a band.  As is unfortunately the case in so many of these creative endeavors involving groups of people, one person is clearly the star and the others are just along for the ride, whether they know it or not, and most recognized, especially James' manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) that the other members were not necessary to be on this ride.  Bobby was the only one who stuck around. 

The rest, as they say, is history.  James Brown did what James Brown does.  He innovated, he became the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working man in Show Business, he was unreasonable, unbalanced, a genius, a husband, a father, a wife abuser, a drug abuser, a shrewd businessman, a sloppy businessman, tragedy, loss, prison yet again, and redemption.  Maybe.  Therein lies our issue with this otherwise fine film.

There are some things that are very good… even great… about 'Get on Up'.  Of course there's the music, but not only the music itself which didn't need the help of this movie for us to know that it was great, but the presentation of the music.  The venues, the artists, the choreography… Tate Taylor almost could've gotten away with simply making this a dramatized concert film.  Then there's the performance put forth by Chadwick Boseman who literally sets the screen on fire.  At every stage of James Brown's life, Mr. Boseman convinced me without qualm that he was this character, which I wasn't convinced going in that Chadwick Boseman, or any actor for that matter, could pull off.  Lennie James and Viola Davis are typically great in limited support and Tika Sumpter is in this movie.  She doesn't do much… but… you know… it's Tika Sumpter. 

But narratively speaking, 'Get on Up' was literally all over the place.  We are in 1980, then 1940, back to the 80's then to the 60's then let's stop off at the 50's… I'm not quite sure what purpose the non-linear time line was serving, and I would even say that in regards to a movie that many consider on the best ever in Pulp Fiction… I'm just not sure what the story telling value is jumping from various points in time.  Also, this movie covers an awful lot of geographical time in not a lot of actual time, thus cramming sixty years' worth of anything into a couple of hours can really only result in a half told story.  Almost everything that is James Brown in this movie, at least as a person, is glossed over.  The abuse, the drug usage, the marriages, his issues with the family he was half raised by and the family he helped half raise… It was entertaining to watch but it was very incomplete.  Recognizing for it to be more complete the movie would have to be about five hours long, or the filmmakers would have and probably should have narrowed their time focus.

But the music didn't suffer, that's for sure.  And to that end, this is ultimately a biopic about a man and his music and thus 'Get on Up', at least on that level was a rousing success.  Great performances, great music, sketchy narrative… still adds up to a very entertaining film.
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