I'm going to tell you a true story.
I was sitting in the Indianapolis promo screening for director Tate Taylor's latest flick, the James Brown bio-pic Get On Up, and as usual I was sitting in a designated press area in my usual wheelchair friendly spot. As usual, I was sitting alone with two other seats both tagged for members of the press located right beside me. It is not uncommon for me to sit alone during press screenings and, truth be told, I rather prefer it that way. With only a few minutes before the film was about to start, it looked like this would be yet another press screening where I would have the luxury of a bit of privacy amidst a mostly full theater when in walked a young mother with a child who was seated in the two seats next to mine.
As much as I do enjoy sitting alone, I've never been hesitant to give up that privacy as I'm aware that for some folks these free promo screenings can make moviegoing an affordable experience. So, despite my momentary disappointment at suddenly not being alone I quickly adjusted my attitude and settled in prepared to enjoy the film. It became obvious within moments of this mother and son's arrival that this particular young man had a rather pronounced intellectual challenge and the mother was obviously practicing her obviously often utilized techniques for managing his behaviors in a public setting. Now then, before you think to yourself "It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen," I should inform those of you who don't know that I continue to work a gig with the State of Indiana's Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services and, in fact, spent nine years working in an inner-city emergency room doing crisis intervention and having a specialization in serving this very population.
In other words, I didn't think to myself "This is a disaster waiting to happen." Instead, I thought "How very cool of this mother to give her son this opportunity" because I believe in community integration with every fiber of my being.
Now then, here's my long delayed point.
This young man lived and breathed every single moment of Get On Up with an excitement and an enthusiasm that it would be nearly impossible to describe. While he clearly had communication deficits, his body language and his facial expressions were communicating how much he truly loved this film, its music, and the feeling he was getting while watching it. While I very much enjoyed the film anyway, watching this young man's spirit be so fully alive during the film only enhanced my own electricity as I watched this immensely satisfying motion picture.
Get On Up stars Chadwick Boseman (42) as the man known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, and so much more. While it is true that Boseman does not do his own singing in Get On Up, it is also true that his performance here could be and should be a star-making performance that captures, most likely more completely than anyone dreamed possible, the many complexities of a man who could be tender and romantic and soulful while also being a wife beater, drug user, and control freak. Working from a script by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, director Tate Taylor (The Help) has crafted a flawed yet fantastic film that captures a story that is simultaneously familiar yet immensely surprising.
If, by some freakish chance, you're not familiar with James Brown, pretty much all you need to do is listen to contemporary hip hip or R&B to hear Brown's lasting influence. Born into a sharecropper's cabin in 1933, Get On Up gives us a PG-13 rated version of Brown's seemingly harrowing roots as he's abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis) and left by his father (Lennie James) in the care of another relative (Octavia Spencer). There are glimpses into the racism of the time in scenes, for example, such as when a younger James (played by JaMarion and Jordan Scott) gets what is seemingly his first pair of shoes straight off the feet of a recently lynched dead man. There are other scenes, as well, that remind you of the power of the times and the overwhelming rarity of having an African-American man succeeded while remaining unapologetically Black and proud. When a young Brown lands himself in prison for stealing a suit, he meets the man who will change the course of his life, Bobby Byrd (True Blood's Nelsan Ellis), the lead singer of the Gospel Starlighters who convinces his family to take Brown in which allows him to be released from prison and puts him on his musical path while pretty much commandeering Byrd's own musical aspirations into the background.
It was another face-to-face meeting with another up-and-coming local star, Little Richard (Brandon Smith), that would inspire Brown to make the demo that would attract the attention of Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) of Federal Records. Of course, it's not long before Brown and his bandmates, the Fabulous Flames, will be dubbed by the record company as James Brown and the Fabulous Flames and it becomes stunningly clear that it's James who is truly destined for stardom. Interestingly enough, despite being almost universally known as the Godfather of Soul, Brown actually didn't have a Billboard hit until 1965's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and he only charted seven other Top 10 singles including his last chart hit, "Living in America," which strangely enough is not actually covered in the film.
There is a lot covered in the film, though Taylor nicely avoids the usual chronological storytelling often associated with bio-pics in favor of a sort of back-and-forth approach with each section of the film titled after one of Brown's publicly assigned or self-chosen monikers. While the approach could have been disastrous, Taylor handles it well and it's an effective way of capturing the lifelong energy and complexities of Brown.
The Butterworth script doesn't avoid Brown's demons, though neither does it dwell on them. The film really only gives us two of Brown's three wives, and there's a strong focus on one particular son of Brown's out of the nine children that he claimed from his three marriages and, in all likelihood, extracurricular activities. The film also doesn't shy away from the truth that Brown was a known wife abuser and drug user, and while these behaviors aren't excused there is an attempt to at least explain his roots and try to gain some understanding into how he became who he was known to be.
Get On Up also shares quite openly that Brown could be a driven control freak who alienated even those closest to him. While he fancied himself a strong businessman, his late 80's tax troubles indicated that perhaps he didn't have quite as much control of his empire as he'd believed. When he reached a point where he could no longer pay his band, he simply stopped doing so without explanation.
Yet, time and again, the other side of James Brown is also brought vividly to life. There are scenes, sometimes remarkably little scenes, where one can see Boseman bringing to life Brown's attempts to overcome his poverty and abuse cycles and trying to become a better man. There's a scene, for example, where his young son Teddy arrives at his father's plan having acquired a contagious condition yet his father openly and intentionally embraces him. It's a quiet and powerful scene that shows Brown's desire to be a different type of father.
Brown could be fiercely loyal, though he could also immediately turn if that loyalty was questioned or challenged. He was a master statesman of sorts, practically single-handedly preventing a riot in Boston during his concert the night that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and he was unafraid to do almost absurd things such as flying into the middle of Vietnam to entertain the troops. He had a conflicted relationship with his bandmates, including Byrd and saxophonist Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), and was known for demanding to be called Mr. Brown by even his most familiar confidante.
While Tate Taylor's The Help was an Oscar nominated film, rest assured that Get On Up is vastly superior in almost every way. Whereas The Help in many ways served to whitewash its historical context, Get On Up fully lives into it. While James Brown is certainly a louder and prouder subject, Get On Up is a more disciplined film with less editorializing and more simply trusting the story. While there were times I found the film maddening, such as during a couple of awkwardly photographed cloud transition scenes, Get On Up is a 2+ hour transformative journey through one of musical history's most electrifying and complex performers.
Boseman's performance is nothing short of an Oscar worthy performance. While he doesn't do his own singing here, Boseman embodies Brown in a way that seems almost impossible to believe. He captures Brown's sexiness, boldness, passion, and vulnerability. He captures Brown's remarkable physicality and his speech patterns in such a way that after a while you stop thinking Boseman and are completely immersed in James Brown.
In what amounts to glorified cameos, despite their high billing in the film, both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer make the most of their appearances and leave memorable impressions. Davis, in particular, manages to turn a character who could have so easily been a one-note addict/loser and infuse her with a rich humanity that makes you understand even if you don't approve. As the sidekick who comes to realize that he was meant to live a musical life in the background, Nelsan Ellis gives an understated yet resonant performance as Bobby Byrd. Dan Aykroyd also gives a strong performance, while former Disney Channel star Brandon Smith only has one scene but hits it out of the ballpark as Little Richard and Jill Scott also shines.
Thomas Newman's original music nicely complements the film's abundant use of Brown's original recordings and some tunes re-mixed by Mick Jagger, who is a lifelong Brown fan and a producer on the film. Stephen Goldblatt's lensing is both intimate and universal, while in a film such as this one I would be remiss to not mention the terrific costuming of Sharen Davis that captures the different decades quite nicely while also paying attention to Brown's well known reputation for detail.
While it likely goes without saying that the latest Marvel creation, Guardians of the Galaxy, is likely headed for a box-office win this weekend, Get On Up deserves a wealth of attention and one can only hope that America pays attention to Boseman's remarkable performance that will hopefully be remembered come awards season.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic