Get On Up

tn_getonupFor several years Spike Lee talked about doing a James Brown biopic starring Wesley Snipes. This was fairly recently, like while Wesley was locked up. Man, I couldn’t quite picture what that would be like, and I really wanted to find out. But I figured even if Wesley could pull off the role I wasn’t sure a movie about James Brown could ever work. Would a movie really be able to show his incredible genius without toning down what a horrible person he was?

When I heard somebody besides Lee was doing the James Brown biopic, and that it was the guy that did the fucking HELP, I was not happy. And who do they have playing The Godfather? Chadwick Boseman, same guy who already played Jackie Robinson in that other movie that that other white director did before Spike Lee could. I bet this Boseman guy has nightmares about getting stomped by Air Jordans.

And the trailers didn’t help. With quick clips of Boseman in a wig lip synching James Brown, you couldn’t really tell if he looked that much like him, same with the dialogue. And there was a version with interviews of rappers and Mick Jagger and stuff talking about how important James Brown is. What the fuck is this approach? Who is this demographic of fucking weirdos who have no idea who James Brown is but will see a movie about him if Mick Jagger recommends it? What, did they already see a video of Taylor Swift or Macklemore or somebody explaining how important Mick Jagger is?

But you know what, I wanted to see GET ON UP anyway because even a real standard, mediocre book report on James Brown would at least be celebrating the music I love. It might be okay, right? Like a funky version of RAY? It’ll probly start with James backstage in Boston, MLK has just been killed and they’re telling him he can’t go on because there will be riots, and he flashes back to when he was a kid, and–

mp_getonupActually, no. I was so happy when the movie started with crazy old man James Brown in a green velvet track suit, blasting his own music in a pickup truck in an empty strip mall parking lot. He pulls up to his office building. His tenants in a neighboring suite are having some kind of business seminar, and he storms in with a rifle on his shoulder and starts ranting about somebody taking a shit in his toilet. It’s scary and funny and it’s not how I expected a suspected square like the guy that did THE HELP to start the movie.

And from there it doesn’t flash back, it just jumps to a moment of chaos. James and a six-member band are in a plane in Vietnam, bombs exploding all around them as they head to a USO date. James is complaining to the pilot about not being able to bring his 22 piece funk orchestra, and then he fines Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) twenty bucks for cursing.

And then we do see him as a dirt poor child living in a shack with no windows, having to duck the kind of confusing, traumatic violence and disrespect between parents that set the stage for this turbulent life. (It’s kind of funny that it skips around in time, because it’s from the writers of EDGE OF TOMORROW.)

The childhood scenes with his father (Lennie James from The Walking Dead) and mother (Viola Davis) are pretty scary, and I love the scene where he rebels by making a beat with a stick on a table. After his dad flips out on him he has a bloody smile of triumph. Think about that next time you listen to “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”

It’s all handled much more artfully than I expected, but yes, it also comes down to Boseman being simply incredible in this role. He does the dancing and everything (apparently with no experience in that sort of thing) and in the old man makeup his head even looks mis-proportioned and weird like the real thing. I saw James Brown in concert two times, the last time in 2000 for the opening of the Experience Music Project museum here. I remember standing near the front of that stage seeing him close up and thinking jesus, this guy looks like an alien. His waistline is at his pecs, his body tiny, his head double-wide, his eyes far apart, that giant hair… at the time it seemed to make sense that that was part of his appeal. He was not human. Boseman looks more like a human, but he does a good job of physically implying James Brown. That’s something that didn’t come across to me in the ads and photos.

And to me there are actually things more important than the dancing and the physical resemblance, like the voice and the attitude and the strut and the unpredictable anger. We can always watch footage of the real James Brown performing, but not so much off stage. And I loved seeing Boseman go from age 17 to 60something, through pompadours, afros and sweaty messes; suits, leotards and fur coats; giving people attitude and speeches and talking about himself in the third person. Somebody should add up how many times just his character says “James Brown” in this movie. The number’s gotta be astronomical.

He molds himself from Little Junior, brothel orphan, to James Brown, guy with his name on the tail of his private jet. He created James Brown. At the end he’s strutting around saying “I’m James Brown! I’m James Brown!” over and over again. It’s like the end of MALCOLM X except a whole school room of kids doesn’t get to be him. It’s a more exclusive club.

And in this movie James Brown is like some kind of extra-dimensional being. Not only does he jump around in time, he can see us watching him. At one point he’s performing and asking a crowd if they’re doing all right, then he looks at us and asks us too. At another point his associate (Dan Aykroyd, who worked with the real James Brown in THE BLUES BROTHERS) is explaining to him why he can’t promote a tour the way he wants to, and James turns and gives us a look like “Can you believe this bullshit?” Then he just gets up and walks away, goes into the kitchen and explains to us how he’s gonna do it while he gets a plate of chicken.

He has the charisma of Soul Brother #1 but I’m happy that it doesn’t overshadow him being a fucking asshole. There’s only one wife beating scene sitting in for all of them, but it’s a really upsetting one that happens out of the blue during blissful holiday cheer, and in one of the two scenes I noticed that playfully re-create imagery from his album covers. Way to catch me off guard.

Then there’s the way he treats his band, underpaying them, fining them, lecturing them, causing two great bands to walk out on him. He has the gall to get pissed at Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, who played MLK in Lee Daniels’ LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) – who got him out of jail as a teenager, convinced his family to shelter and feed him, and was his subservient sidekick and cape-draper for years – just for dreaming about doing a solo show some day. What a fucking dick.

In many ways this is the story of the odd friendship between James and Bobby. After all, “Get On Up” is the part Bobby says. If it was just about James it would be called “GET UPPAH!”

As a fan of the funk there are little things that seemed inaccurate to me, but the non-linear story and sometimes dreamy feel make that stuff go down easier. And of course there’s no way to include everything you want to see in there, especially about all the great musicians he worked with. Bobby and Maceo are the only legendary J.B.’s that get many lines, and it makes it seem like Maceo is just some jobber who does it for the money, doesn’t really understand funk, is almost ungrateful. Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought from The Roots) is in there a little bit as Pee Wee Ellis, the hiring of Bootsy is referenced, though they never clearly showed the actor who plays him, and a drummer is called off as “Clyde,” Stubblefield I assume. I didn’t notice anybody playing Fred Wesley. In fact, we never even hear the name The J.B.’s.

I was kinda surprised there wasn’t a Rumble in the Jungle section, but then if you can’t get Will Smith as Ali, and you gotta spend the money to fake Africa, and some of the other musicians that were there… maybe it would be a bad idea to include it.

One subtle detail I like is in the nightmarish scene where little James and a bunch of other black boys fight a one-armed boxing battle royale for the entertainment of rich white folks. The kids have big numbers painted on their bare chests and James is #1. There’s a band playing during the fight and he looks down and he sees into the future and suddenly they’re his band and they’re playing his song. From this act of abuse and humiliation comes power. He is #1, as in Soul Brother #1, as in play the note on the 1 beat and you got funk.

My favorite thing about this movie is that it lets us hang out with this crazy motherfucker. I like seeing him fly into a combat zone and immediately start lecturing an officer about the funk and James Brown does this and James Brown does that. I like hearing him rap to himself during his infamous police chase. But also being a little kid and wandering into a revival tent, walking into the crowd of people dancing and singing, looking like he stumbled across a secret amusement park in the woods.

To me this succeeds as a biopic because it doesn’t try to succinctly explain James Brown the person, or humanize him, exactly. He’s still a figure of legend. At the beginning he’s hurtling wrecklessly through the air, at the end down roads, in the middle through woods, literally dodging bombs and bullets. Throughout decades he’s mounting stage after stage, leaving behind trails of families and bands and although he makes a gesture of friendship at the end, and although Boseman sometimes shows on his face that JB has more awareness about what he’s doing than he lets on, he never seems like he is just a man. He’s always James Brown. James Brown! For what that’s worth.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 6th, 2015 at 11:05 am and is filed under Drama, Music, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Get On Up”

  1. So what you’re saying is we should Hit it, and NOT Quit it?

    I’mma gonna need Bootsy’s opinion. BOOTSY?

  2. Wow, great review Vern. This movie does do some strange/cool/unexpected things for a biopic… but I could never really give myself over to it fully. I kept being held back by imagining what Spike & Wesley’s version would’ve done instead. Boseman IS amazing, this is the 2nd thing I’ve seen him in and he was a powerhouse in 42 as well. It’s cool how in the Young JB scenes he’s something like a normal guy, and becomes more and more of James Brown The Character as he ages.

    I’m not a guy who will hate on a traditional biopic if it’s entertaining. I’ll dig on a RAY. Though I think the ideal is something like LINCOLN, just fixating on a certain moment in time with a specific problem that needs to be solved. I thought this was kinda going for a RAGING BULL kind of thing, but it could’ve been even harsher about James and the ending makes it seem like the whole thing was about James & Bobby – but that came as a surprise to me because the film only intermittently attends to their relationship, as opposed to how Pesci is seemingly in most scenes in RB.

    Also while you’re right it’s definitely less square than I expected from the THE HELP guy, I felt you could still tell it was made by a white dude because Brown is shown grieving over Dan Aykroyd but not his own son. 42 had its heart in the right place too but kinda had a similar problem…

  3. Random James Brown moment (I hope the video plays outside of Germany): German comedian (and honest to god fan of funk!) Stefan Raab meets the godfather himself and jams with him on his Ukulele.


  4. I actually thought this was the best movie I saw in a theater last year. So much more interesting and wild than the trailers let on.

    But yeah, standing in line at some random AMC in San Diego we overheard two youngsters inaccurately guessplain to each other who James Brown is/was. One of them was unconvinced that he was a real person.

    So that was fucking weird. Imagine a world without James Brown.

    Also, Boseman is as good as it gets. Black Panther is going to be amazing.

  5. I was scared away from this movie because it looked like a stale biopic. I’m happy to hear there’s a lot more going on than I had suspected. Anyway, this review has inspired me to break out James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album, so that’s something positive for today.

  6. Nice, the review totally makes me wanna see the movie now … and that whats it all about – well done Sir, well done

  7. I love James Browns music and I listen to it like it was released yesterday. It’s timeless in my mind and that’s been proven by the amount of it that has been sampled. The movie felt chaotic just like James Brown and his music. They did a much better job with it then I ever expected. I had the same feelings about the guy from The Help directing it. I was wrong, it’s the total opposite of The Help. They did a great job of showing the genius that was James Brown. Did they gloss over the wife beating? Yes. I don’t really care though. In that era a lot of men did the same and what I didn’t really want to see was Ray Part 2 where it just focused on drug use and horrible incidents while trying to get to some sort of redemption in the end. Every biopic focuses on that stuff. I wanted to see a movie that focused on James Brown the crazy musical genius and ultimate showman, and I got that. James Brown made so much music and his output was so prolific that there is no way you could include it all in a 2 hour movie. I knew things would be left out and the JB’s were never even mentioned. That was fine with me because they captured the feeling of James Brown music in a movie.

    Chadwick Boseman brought the man to life in all his hyper crazy glory. I was pretty shocked that Boseman was as good as he was. I saw 42 and when they announced he was playing James Brown all I could think is Hollywood always chooses the hot black man of the moment and rarely chooses the actor who fits the role. Not one thing in 42 said to me this guy was a great actor. He was fine in 42 but it’s not like there was anything in that movie that most other actors couldn’t have done. This guy really opened my eyes with his portrayal of James Brown from young man to his old age. This guy is a talent to watch in the future. He was electric in this movie. It’s too bad this movie was not widely seen because he 100% deserves to be nominated for an Oscar but it’ll never happen and that’s too bad. Great movie that captured the spirit of James Brown in every way.

  8. Watched this last night and had a blast with it. The music, the acting, the hair! Also, I have to compare it to Whiplash, which I watched first. They have similar themes and motifs but Get On Up is a much better movie.
    Neither was particularly subtle, but Whiplash was so on the nose! Blood, sweat, tears, and pushing people. I get it. Jeez. And the teachers slide to cartoonish super-villany near the end was ridiculous.

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