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If ever there was an entertainer, nay, a cultural icon, whose life would make a great movie, and there are countless icons whose stories demand to be told, James Brown would easily be one of the names tossed around in such a discussion. We are all well aware of the stage presence he possessed, but by the time all was written, James Brown’s influence reached, and continues to reach, far beyond the stage and ultimately, into something much deeper that speaks to all of us, which is the soul.
Soul. A genre of music that brings to mind the names of great recording artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, to name a few. Yet, James Brown is another name associated with the sound of soul music (and to a large extent, funk music). After all, he is the Godfather of Soul and there is only one. Or at least there was until Chadwick Boseman came along.
Boseman is the reason you want to see this movie. Of course we get the expectedly stellar performances from the likes of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis among others, but Boseman is the legend as he completely embodies James Brown. There is a fine line in any biopic for an actor to walk without becoming a caricature of the person being portrayed, but Boseman allows the spirit of James Brown to take him over and the result is an absolutely mesmerizing and soulful performance worthy of Academy recognition. Were he alive today, James Brown would be proud.
The film plays a bit like the origin story of one of our contemporary comic book heroes, which feels appropriate for Brown, who is most certainly seen as a hero in many respects. The nonlinear method of storytelling felt like Batman Begins or Man of Steel in the ways the film jumps around from moment to moment. The difference between the aforementioned comic book films and this one though, is that at some point the movie stops jumping and continues to tell its tale linearly. Get On Up on the other hand, keeps jumping just when you begin to feel settled in the story. This is initially jarring, but by the end of the film you get used to it as the film still allows you to sense the overall direction of the story. If James Brown were a movie, this is probably how he might be, albeit with an R rating, and you’d still love him.
James Brown was a self-made man. He was the mythic hero who came from nothing to become something; to become someone. He was also a bit of a genius and a savvy businessman. He wasn’t born into wealth, but he had an inner strength about him that allowed him to overcome a great deal of hardship. If suffering builds character, then Brown’s iconic status is more than deserved as he knew as much about suffering as he did about success and the film does a decent job at establishing the events in his life that would shape and define his character.
Screenwriting team Jez and John-Henry Butterworth do what they can to fit the key pieces of Brown’s life in, but they neglect some necessary space for significant depth to present itself as a result of those key pieces. That said, there are few moments of profundity that give us some insight into the man beneath the larger-than-life exterior, but there could have been more. It seems a great deal more attention was paid to accurately representing the show-stopping performances, which Brown executed with insane energy. One cannot complain about that, as it would be inexcusable for any movie about James Brown to not get the look and feel of the performances right. However, it seems slightly uneven in its balance of the public and personal aspects of Brown’s life with more attention paid to the public, more surface pieces, without enough of the personal, which might cause viewers unfamiliar with Brown’s journey to feel as if they have witnessed an extended show as opposed to experiencing who James Brown actually was, as much as is possible in a two hour plus film.
As far as biopics go, this is definitely one of the more entertaining offerings that James Brown aficionados and music fans alike will enjoy. It all comes down to the question of what the people care about regarding the life of James Brown. Few care about the domestic violence charges, drug use and subsequent prison time, that plagued Brown’s later years. Few care about how many times Brown was married or how many children he had. What people seem to remember most about him was what a powerhouse of an entertainer and musical genius he was. They recognize how important he was as a cultural hero and one of the voices of Black America in the late 1960s, while continuing to make people move to his music. They care about him being a founding father of funk and the influence he had on the music of generations who followed him. This is the legacy of James Brown. Get On Up reminds us why he is and will always be the Godfather of Soul.