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Get On Up
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not Super, Just Bad"
2 stars

Throughout his long and illustrious career, the late, great James Brown developed a unique style of music that would go on to sell millions of records, serve as the inspiration for countless performers in the rock, soul and rap genres and serve as the ideal shorthand for people putting together movie trailers who need to quickly establish that the characters are indeed feeling good. He also took charge of his own career at a time when that was practically unheard of for an artist and took an interest in many of the key social issues of the day. On the other hand, he was hot-tempered, a perfectionist who would fine members of his group for a flubbed note or missed dance step, an abusive husband, a drug addict and did a couple of stretches in prison, most infamously for a 1988 incident in which he shot up an insurance seminar before leading police on an extended chase. Oh yeah, he was also the Rev. Cleophus James in "The Blues Brothers," a move that endeared him to a whole new generation of fans who were presumably just as agog over the man, his moves and his voice as earlier generations were when he first burst upon the scene.

In other words, James Brown lived a full and eventful life, to put it mildly, and I went in to see "Get On Up," the long-awaited Brown biopic, two questions went through my mind. First, how could anyone possibly telescope such a life into a two-hour dramatic feature when even an epic-length documentary of the sort that Martin Scorsese put together for Bob Dylan and George Harrison might seem constricting? Second, how could anyone make a film offering an accurate representation of his life from his harsh childhood in the Deep South at a time when lynching was still a thing to the excesses brought on by his stardom and still bring it in with an all-important PG-13 rating. Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is the same--they can't--and the result is a colossal disappointment that squanders both a promising subject and a startlingly effective performance by Chadwick Boseman as Brown on a film that is just another music biopic, only less so.

Apparently realizing early on that there was no way that they could put Brown's entire life into a single film with a straightforward narrative line, screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have instead employed a mosaic-like structure that bounces back and forth throughout Brown's life seemingly at the drop of the hat--the opening scens go from the 1988 arrest to his tour of Vietnam to his hardscrabble beginnings as a child rural South Carolina being raised by an abusive father (Lennie James) and later by an aunt (Octavia Spencer) following the departure of his mother (Viola Davis). The film continues to do this throughout as we drop in on key moments in his life--his 1949 arrest for stealing a suit and how it led to his being taken in by the family of fellow musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who would be his loyal sideman until the early 1970's, his dealings with music company weasels that inspire him to seize control of his career starting with his insistence on recording a 1962 performance at the Apollo that would go on to be one of the classic soul albums of all time, the way he managed to prevent a riot in Boston following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. through his music, a couple of rocky marriages and the loss of a child. No, there is nothing here regarding the making of either one of the "Blues Brothers" movies that he participated in but we do get a sequence depicting the shooting of his musical number for the infamous Frankie Avalon vehicle "Ski Party."

From a dramatic standpoint, I can understand why the Butterworths decided to go with such an approach--by going back and forth between incidents, the film can avoid the ugly fact that most human lives do not obey the classic three-act dramatic structure while underscoring to a greater extent how the past and present connect to each other. That said, it is an exceptionally tricky way to tell a story and if anything gets messed up along the way--if the scenes have no real flow or unity to them or if the shifts in tone are too jarring--then the whole thing runs the risk of being a jumbled mess. (Oliver Stone's recently released recut of "Alexander" is a good example of such an approach being done well.) That, unfortunately, is the case here. The screenplay is simply a collection of incidents that seem to have been put together more or less at random--a strange take for a subject who was so obsessed with precision in his own work--and the connections that they try to establish between the different time periods are often too tenuous for their own good. Also, presumably to satisfy Brown's family and to secure their participation and the all-important music right, the darker parts of Brown's life are either glossed over, hurried through or ignored altogether. To make matters worse, director Tate Taylor (the guy who somehow turned the loathsome "The Help" into a huge hit almost despite his efforts) never finds the right directorial touch and transforms everything into an overblown spectacle--the Vietnam sequence is so over-the-top with crashing planes and napalm blasts that you half-expect to hear Jimi Hendrix's on the soundtrack instead of James Brown's.

Another key problem with "Get On Up" is the music, or rather the film's apparent lack of interest in it. Oh sure, the film is jam-packed with any number of Brown's biggest hits and will no doubt inspire any number of post-screening downloads. However, the film demonstrates relatively little curiosity about the music and how the always-innovative Brown brought it to life with the aid of such celebrated sidemen as Byrd, Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and, at one point, Bootsy Collins. There is one sequence in which Brown is trying to convince his increasingly incredulous band that the intricate rhythms that he has conceived for a new song will work, despite all evidence to the contrary, and the end result is the classic "Cold Sweat." This is arguably the best single scene in the film because it is the one that best puts forth the concept of Brown as a musical artist of virtually unparalleled creativity and talent. The rest of the time, the music just is and it is a blast to hear the old favorites once again (though woe to the lack of "The Big Payback") but I cannot be the only one out there who would have found a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some of his other hits to be potentially fascinating as well, can I?

The one aspect of the film, other than the music, that does work is the performance by Chadwick Boseman as Brown. You may remember Boseman last year from his breakthrough performance as Jackie Robinson in "42," a turn that was comparatively easy because most people knew Robinson only from his carefully constructed on-filed image of graceful nobility in the face of raw hatred and nothing else. Here, Boseman is asked to not only to accurately approximate the look and sound of one of the most famous musical talents of his time but to somehow summon his incredibly energy, timing and jaw-dropping moves during the musical performance sequences. (Brown's actual voice is heard on the soundtrack but during the key live performance scenes, Boseman sang along with a playback of the original tracks as a way of mimicking their energy.) Not only is Boseman able to pull this considerable trick off with no problem, he does the same thing that the real Brown always did--he makes it somehow look easy. Of the other performances, the only one of real note is Ellis's turn as the long-suffering Bobby Byrd--the relationship that he and Boseman are able to convey is due almost entirely to their efforts and not to the stumblings of the screenplay. Spencer and Davis pop up in small parts, presumably as favors to Taylor in exchange for their celebrated turns in "The Help," but neither one makes much of an impression.

Over the years, James Brown wrote and performed a staggering number of songs but even at the lowest points--take "Living in America," the hit tune from "Rocky IV"--you never got the sense that he was coasting or going through the motions for an easy payoff; as he frequently put it, he paid the cost to be the boss. Alas, that is exactly the sense that you get while watching "Get On Up," a film that could not be at more odds with its subject matter in terms of artistic temperament if it tried. The only elements saving it from complete disposability are the music and the performance by Chadwick Boseman--too bad that both have wound up being deployed in the service of a project that is not worthy of either of them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25936&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/31/14 11:34:35
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User Comments

8/08/14 Lenore Francois Outstanding performance by lead actor, but poorly crafted film with bad editing choices. 2 stars
8/05/14 FireWithFire More Leftist LIES,with James Brown as an angel and every White as a Racist orge.BULLSHIT!!! 1 stars
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  01-Aug-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 06-Jan-2015


  DVD: 06-Jan-2015

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