Say it loud8/6/2014
“Get On Up”
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd
Awesome! Between Chadwick Boseman’s riveting portrayal of James Brown and the film’s pitch-perfect kaleidoscopic narrative form, “Get On Up” is the kind of musical biopic that audiences await with baited breath. Aside from being the first truly respectable movie to come out of Hollywood this year, “Get On Up” gives voice to the many and varied struggles that James Brown overcame on his way to being the “hardest working man in show-biz.” Evidence that it was always “the singer, not the song,” the film brilliantly shows off James Brown’s charisma and infectious energy, while also giving glimpses of his notorious temper — that finds lightning rods in his wife and band members. Although the film’s committee of screenwriters are careful not to show more than a few of Brown’s angry outbursts for fear of alienating audiences, they get the gist of his volatile personality across.
The jeopardy of biopics rests with how the subject’s life story is compressed, ordered and told. Chadwick Boseman’s transformation into the man who introduced funk to white audiences is unassailable. Boseman tackles Brown’s invigorated dance moves with complete authority. His embodiment of James Brown, from age 16 to 60, is nothing short of phenomenal. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42” was impressive, but his work here as James Brown reveals a young actor in complete command of his craft.
Arriving on the heels of Jon Brewer’s essential documentary “BB King: The Life of Riley,” similarities between childhoods of King and Brown come to the fore. Both were left to fend for themselves as boys, and each transferred their love of gospel music into a personalized blues form that skyrocketed them to fame and fortune beyond the chitlin circuit — famous for exploiting the musicians that played in its Southern roadhouse route.
Rural scenes in South Carolina of the only-child James living in a shack with an abusive, alcoholic father and a desperate mother set the stage for the singer’s rebelliousness to flourish after escaping his parents’ deforming clutches. Robbing a suit from a car seat costs James a few years in the pokey where he meets gospel singer Bobby Byrd (unforgettably played by Nelsan Ellis). Once out of jail, the two men team up to form “The Fabulous Flames” — a short-lived band that launches James Brown as a star singer and bandleader.
It’s after the Fabulous Flames’ foray into popular blues territory with a rocking version of Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” following a performance by Little Richard, that the movie receives one of its best scenes. Outside of the diner where Little Richard (Brandon Smith) slings burgers, he generously gives James advice about how to make an acetate and grease the palms of DJs to give his cuts precious airplay. For an instant we are transported back to the exact moment when the lights went on in James Brown’s head regarding his career, thanks to his latest fan, Little Richard.
There are plenty of bones to pick regarding James Brown’s legend in “Get on Up.” But the music effectively drowns such hair-splitting out. Whether you are a fan of James Brown or not, you’ve got to see what Chadwick Boseman does in filling the performer’s mythic shoes. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at www.ColeSmithey.com.