Mark Reviews Movies

Get on Up


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tate Taylor

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Akroyd, Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Fred Melamed, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 8/1/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 31, 2014

A man in a Merlot-colored suit walks down the long hallway of a backstage area. The sound of a cheering crowd echoes through the space. He struts with his arms straight down at his sides and his palms extended parallel to the ground. Only someone with an unflappable sense of self-assurance walks in this fashion, and we have the sense that this man is the epitome of confidence.

Then we notice that the sound of the audience is droning out specific voices. They get louder and louder, until we hear one, crystal-clear line: "James Brown is no one."

The man is, indeed, James Brown, and the voices of negativity buzzing in his head belong to an assortment of people from his life that we have yet to meet. Perhaps he's only hearing what he imagined people were thinking about him. Maybe the voice is always his, coming from various points in his life.

It's a jumble of sound that opens Get on Up, with the roar of unseen, adoring fans and the increasing volume of self-doubt in the man's mind. The film itself is a jumble, too—of time, of the stories of legend, and of the stuff of infamy (So often do those last two points collide). The screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth has no interest in a linear telling of Brown's story. It moves back and forth in time, marked by the assortment of nicknames he received or gave himself and with no regard for chronology. There's an emotional logic to this structure, though, which envisions the late Brown's life as a series of moments of unmitigated ego and irresolvable pain.

The film's depiction of Brown is one of a man who becomes known as "the hardest working man in show business" because he has no other choice. He performs, records, promotes himself, and repeats the cycle for decades because, in his mind, it is the only thing that makes his life worth anything. If his body isn't occupied in exhausting stage performances, his mind is hard at work—philosophizing about his destiny, planning a business venture that has never before been tried, or plotting some new romantic conquest. He will do anything to drown out those voices in his brain.

Brown knows he is great and maybe—to his way of seeing it, at least—even the best at what he does. The film argues that his ego—itself the product of a string of agonizing rejections since childhood—brings even more hurt to his life and the lives of those he comes to know.

Chadwick Boseman plays Brown from the ages of 16, when he is arrested and sentenced to a maximum of 13 years in prison for stealing a suit in Jim Crow Georgia, to 60, when we see him making that walk down the hallway. Makeup helps the transformation, of course, but Boseman's performance goes much deeper than the layers of silicone on his face. It's also more than an imitation of Brown's distinctive, breathy growl. The singing voice belongs to the real James Brown, and if the lip-syncing always seems a bit off, it hardly matters because Boseman has the dance moves down pat.

What's vital to Boseman's performance is how he captures a driven man whose ambition is infectious. This is a young man who hops on stage with his band while Little Richard (Brandon Smith) is taking a bathroom break. This is an up-and-coming artist who convinces Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd), a veteran agent, to skip the traditional way of promoting shows so that they can keep more money from ticket sales.

He's also abusive to his band members (no real time off and long rehearsals where he scolds them for forgetting that every instrument must serve as percussion), including Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the only true friend he has. They put up with it because they know he'll lead them to success. They don't genuinely consider quitting until the paychecks stop coming on account of Brown's shady business practices. He's worse to the few women we see in his life. In the film's most striking moment of breaking the fourth wall, Brown looks directly at the camera after he hits his wife DeeDee (Jill Scott). There's a visage that simultaneously suggests shame at what he's done, guilt at the knowledge that we've witnessed it, and helplessness in the awareness that he couldn't have stopped himself.

Director Tate Taylor doesn't fully sympathize with Brown in these moments, although the film comes a little too close for comfort in a moment in which the adult Brown, giving himself up for arrest after a police pursuit, becomes a child. Nonetheless, the film is determined, at a minimum, to try to understand what leads him to these moments, even if it's simplified to Brown's parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James) abandoning him at a young age. It glosses over a lot of his legal troubles, but there's enough here to suggest a sordid life behind the music, especially in the film's second scene, which sees an older Brown threatening people with a shotgun because one of them dared to use the bathroom in a building he owns.

Naturally, the music in Get on Up is fantastic, and Taylor knows that his camera and the performances—or, at least, the pantomime of performance—must match the music's energy. He succeeds with long shots and rhythmic editing, close-ups of sweaty faces and possessed legs, and, in one sequence, a montage that switches formats and goes back in time. Moreover, the Butterworths' screenplay allows the music to tell its own story. It is one not only of racial struggles and musical theory but also of joy—however fleeting—in a life that so desperately needed it.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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