Get on Up

The whirlwind life of James Brown.

The red-hot James Brown bio Get on Up hits us hard right out of the gate. The Godfather of Soul gets on the good foot and never stops bringing the funk. He swaggers into a sales meeting full of squares in his business office one morning high on PCP, wearing a bright green tracksuit, and waving a shotgun, wanting to know who took a dump in his bathroom. Then — BOOM! — he and his band are in a helicopter above Vietnam, bombs bursting in air, tracer fire coming in, on their way to entertain American troops. James is unfazed by the Viet Cong. Then — WHOMP! — all of a sudden little “Junior” is skipping sweetly through the Georgia woods with his mother as she’s on her way to dumping the kid off on his dad. Then — BANG! — he’s tearing up the T.A.M.I. Show onstage in Santa Monica, making the Rolling Stones sorry they insisted on following him onstage. He’s a greedy man.

James Brown — The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Please Please Please — was the most charismatic American entertainer of his day. Get on Up drives home that assertion like a jackhammer. It’s the movie biography he deserves, with a knockout performance by Chadwick Boseman as the protagonist, a frenetic downpour of Southern-ness, an electrical storm of field hollers and violence and racism and maple syrup sentimentality and broken hearts and getting over it. In other words, all the things that make us simultaneously dejected and exhilarated about life in America.

Naturally it’s set to music, a cavalcade of Brown’s most frantic tunes lip-synced by Boseman (who also played Jackie Robinson in 42 — two African-American icons in two years). Boseman, director Tate Taylor (The Help), choreographer Aakomon Jones, and the high-spirited cast don’t leave their homework undone. There’s not a wasted scene or gesture in the movie.

We go places and meet people. Filmmaker Taylor and the writers — Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth, and Steven Baigelman — stir in just the right, skimpiest amount of magical realism. James addresses the camera (us) directly and lets us know what he’s thinking (“I was born dead”). One minute he’s in a Santa Claus suit handing out candy to kids, the next he’s a wife beater. Most of the women in his life, from his mother Susie (Viola Davis) to his wives/girlfriends/backup singers (Jacinte Blankenship, Jill Scott, Tika Sumpter), are either pathetic victims or predators. The closest thing James has to a real mama is Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), the bordello madam who raised him.

R&B sensation Little Richard (Brandon Smith), on his way up from flipping burgers, warns James about the devil — a white man who demands to know what you want from him. For absurdism, nothing beats James and the Famous Flames’ rendition of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” on the set of Ski Party, with their red honky sweaters. Right-hand man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) has a sickening lackey’s mentality. Young James walks into a church and discovers his entire act, right down to the fainting spell. Speaking of which, admitted J.B. imitator Mick Jagger is on board as a co-producer, and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd contributes a short, effective bit as early manager Ben Bart. But the real guts of this movie are the tight, rehearsed-to-sound-spontaneous groove James gets with his band.

Actor Boseman completely annihilates the lead role. He may be a little taller than his subject, but five minutes into the movie he is James Brown, raspy speaking voice and all. A man who refuses to give up. The soundtrack playlist of twenty songs is a mixture of studio and live concert cuts, some with new arrangements made for the movie. The country church sequence, the 1962 Apollo gig, the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show, “Cold Sweat” in the recording studio, James’ spectacular “Sex Machine” in Paris, and the a cappella version of “Try Me”: all solid gold potato chips, can’t stop eating ’em. James Brown is a difficult man to idealize, but we can’t ignore him for a second. He paid the cost to be the boss.


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