“Get On Up”
“Get On Up” is a sprawling, rambling, sometimes-inspiring, sometimes-maddening biopic of the late, great James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul.”
The lead is played by Chadwick Boseman, who memorably depicted Jackie Robinson in “42.” He’s just as convincing here: his energy, acting talent, and obvious musical skills allow him to “impersonate” James Brown in a way few would have thought possible (even the signature dance moves). In the interests of time, they cut off most of the songs somewhere in the middle, but this reviewer would have liked several to have been presented whole, even at the risk of repetition. Particularly “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”---and what happened to “I Feel Good”?
The frustrating part about this film is that it jumps around so much----what would have been wrong with sequential narrative? And it seems to get stuck in some places and very lightly gloss over others. Maybe we’ll never know the entire truth about the early life of James Brown, but he was obviously born in poverty, and his parents fought frequently until finally separating, but even there the movie version differs from most other accounts. In the movie, his mother leaves, and eventually his father abandons him, also, and James is forced, as a young boy, to try to make his own way, eventually winding up at an Aunt’s who happened to be the Madame at a brothel, and earning commission from solicitations, bringing in soldiers from a nearby Army camp. (An alternative account has him living with his Mother in New York City , but only completing the seventh grade.) And there was a stint in juvenile prison for theft (though the movie claims he was only stealing a suit of clothes).
Though church participation doesn’t seem to be part of James’ life, he did claim that Gospel music was one of his influences, and initially joins a Gospel group and encourages them to switch to R & B. Though barely literate and not at all musically trained, James Brown unquestionably had a gift. Here, he talks about how the Funk is in him, and runs through him, which is maybe the only explanation there is for the incredible talent which just oozed out of his pores when he performed. There was just no stopping his meteoric rise to fame.
Again, the movie glosses over most of the many people who helped him along the way. There was this (white) Jewish bookkeeper named Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), who might have been a kind of mentor, but he died early on, and in the movie James Brown is shown as being a much better business man himself, bypassing the good-ol’-boy promotion system and being in control of his own record distribution. But the movie doesn’t try to portray James Brown as a commercial genius---at one point the band members mutiny because they weren’t being paid, and claim they know about Brown’s tax trouble and legal hassles, and he responds to their impertinence by just firing them all (not the first time he got rid of all his backup musicians at once). His oldest friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) told him, “I’m not leaving you alone, because you already are. It’s always been just you.”
And in a way, that was true. James Brown was married to his own career; called himself “the busiest man in show business” because of his constant touring. The movie glosses over a couple of the women who were part of his life---in fact there were three wives and at least one mistress and nine acknowledged children and a disputed number of other offspring. The movie depicts one brief instance of his ever striking a woman, but in fact he was arrested for domestic violence numerous times, and served yet another stint in prison for drug and weapons possession, which was mentioned not at all.
Ah, but that musical talent. Just incredible. You had to see it to believe it. And “Get On Up” gives us all an incredible (fawning) legacy to the performer who was truly one of a kind.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas