Friday, February 27, 2015

Get on Up

Directed by Tate Taylor.
2014. Rated PG-13, 139 minutes.
Chadwick Boseman
Nelsan Ellis
Dan Akroyd
Octavia Spencer
Viola Davis
Jill Scott
Craig Robinson
Keith Robinson
Tika Sumpter
Jacinte Blankenship
Ralph Tresvant

My mother raised me on R&B and soul music. I heard it all day, every day. Strangely, though, she was never into James Brown. He thought he was just screaming and grunting all the time. It wasn't until I became a teenager and every other rap song was sampling something from his catalog that I was moved to find out more about him. It also helped that he showed up Rocky IV singing "Living in America." Soon, I had a pretty good handle on who he was and what he meant to the history of music in the United States. It's simple. You can't accurately tell the story of this country's music without talking about James Brown. Like a lot of geniuses, he was at least a little insane and led one hell of an interesting life. Therefore, it was no surprise to me that a movie was made about his life.

Appropriately, Get on Up tries to cover as much of that life as possible in a little less than two and a half hours. We get flashbacks to his troubled early childhood with an abusive single dad and without the mom that abandoned him. A little later, he's dropped off to live with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who runs a brothel out of her house. He wanders over to the nearby church and joins the choir. Later, a bit of thievery causes him to do some serious time. He gets out, hooks up with the guys who once came to the prison to perform. One of them, Bobby Byrd (Ellis) takes him in. Soon, he's the group's lead singer and we watch him travel the road that sees him wind up as THE James Brown.

The titular role is handled by Chadwick Boseman who also played baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in 2013's 42. For me, this was more surprising than the fact there was a JB movie. In my mind, Robinson and Brown are on opposite ends of the universe as far as the type of people they were. This movie bears that out. Thankfully, Boseman is up to the challenge. He really makes us think we're looking at the Godfather of Soul. His speech is appropriately gravelly, garbled, and occasionally non-sensical. His swagger is turned all the way up and even our hero's legendary dance moves are on-point. There is one aspect where Boseman falls short, though. It's not entirely his fault. Director Tate Taylor and his sound techs should share in the blame. The problem is that it's pretty clear that during those performances Boseman is lip-synching. It's bad enough that it detracts from fantastic physical mimicry he's doing on stage. Overall, though, it's still an excellent performance.

Sadly, Boseman's work is wasted on a misguided story. The screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is so reverent of James Brown it refuses to find fault with him even during his very worst moments. We see him bully everyone around him. For starters, he treats his band like indentured servants. He makes them rehearse at odd hours even on their supposed days off and only pays them occasionally. When they finally had enough and hold out for better treatment, it's no cause for reflection. It's merely a chance to bring in all new and better talent. Screw these guys and the families they may have been supporting. The only holdover is the ever-loyal Bobby Byrd. James' promiscuity causes him to have children with multiple women and ends his first marriage. That marriage is to Bobby's sister, no less. Through it all, he sticks by James' side. It's meant to show how great a friendship they had. What it really does is portray Byrd as a spineless sycophant. As for James, he's a relentless tyrant and spoiled brat who always gets his way. Whatever he does serves to fuel his greatness. To an extent, I'm sure it really did. I'm also fairly certain that he paid a cost for this in other areas of his life. We see none of this, here. His physical abuse of his second wife is glossed over. He slaps her. She flies across the room. He stands there for a second or two like he thinks that might not have been a great idea. Then...nothing. It's like it never happened. His terrorizing of his staff at a strip mall he owns by brandishing a shotgun in the office because someone used his private bathroom is played for laughs ending in a Dukes of Hazard style car chase with the police. The real life event was much sadder. Here, it's our hero being gleefully defiant.

Back on the plus side, things happen in rapid enough succession that the time passes rather quickly. Despite the lip-synching problems the performances are so full of energy, it's hard not to marvel at the expenditure of energy of both Boseman and the real James Brown who did it night after night for so many years. Those flashbacks to when he was a small child are easily the most effective. Just about everything that happens to him is heart-breaking. It's so bad that we instantly recognize that him going to prison affords him a chance to start over. Some in the supporting cast also do really well. Dan Akroyd shines most as JB's manager. Octavia Spencer and a toned-down Craig Robinson do well in their roles. Viola Davis is excellent, as always, as JB's mom.

Jill Scott does well with what she has to work with, but is wasted, here. Her character, Brown's second wife Dee Dee, being underdeveloped is the most troubling aspect of the movie. She bursts onto the scene and quickly steals James away from Bobby's sister Velma (Blankenship). She's then with him for the rest of the movie. However, she's either the subject of whatever he's dishing out, good or bad, or just part of the scenery. Through her, we could've learned much more about James as a person. He could have become a truly rounded human being instead of the fiery, unrepentant dictator whom everything always works out for. He doesn't because there are no scenes that push for this. There are no quiet moments where he and Dee Dee have an even remotely meaningful conversation. There are none with anyone else, for that matter. He merely tells everyone what they are going to do and that they'll like it. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, a better title for this movie would've been I'm James Brown, Bitch!

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