REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
James Brown is one of the most significant figures in 20th century American popular music. “Get On Up” provides a biopic of the late composer/performer/bandleader.
Brown had a remarkable career, which spanned six decades. Starting off in the gospel idiom in the ’50s, he gravitated to secular R&B. He later became a pioneer of the emerging funk genre. As a result of his extraordinary stage performances, Brown attracted such hyperbolic sobriquets as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite,” “Soul Brother Number 1,” and eventually, “The Godfather of Soul.”
It is doubtful that any living person could duplicate the dynamism or the elaborate terpsichorean routines that won acclaim for Brown. So, Chadwick Bosworth has a thankless task. Undaunted, he gives it a game effort. His depictions of Brown’s stage shows are quite impressive. Nevertheless, he falls far short of capturing the transformative magic of Brown’s live performances. Nevertheless, Bosworth does a superb job of capturing the complexities of a multi-faceted and often conflicted man. It is an impressive follow-up for Bosworth, who previously portrayed Jackie Robinson in another biopic, “42,”
Portraying the protagonist’s mother, Susie, Viola Davis is tremendous as always. She gives another memorably measured and nuanced performance. We meet her as a very young woman, who is struggling against extreme poverty to raise five-year old James (Jamarion Scott) in an isolated wooden shack. She is routinely battered by her abusive, ne’er-do-well husband, Joe (Lennie James). After abandoning her son, we see Davis reappear at several subsequent junctures throughout Brown’s life. The scene in which she has a backstage reunion with her estranged son, is deeply moving. It infuses the film with an unmistakable touch of poignancy.
The film boasts other excellent performances. Octavia Spencer plays Brown’s Aunt Honey, the madam of a brothel, who helped raise him. Nelsan Ellis is Bobby Byrd, whose protracted personal and professional relationship with Brown dated back to their days together in The Avons, a gospel group. Craig Robinson portrays Maceo Parker, the saxophonist in the Famous Flames, Brown’s back-up group. As Brown’s second wife, DeeDee, Jill Scott captures the dilemma of a woman caught in a tempestuous marriage. Brandon Smith nails Little Richard as an up and coming singer, who is still flipping burgers. All of these actors add substance to the film.
The same can’t be said of Dan Ackroyd, who portrays Ben Bart, the president of Universal Attractions Agency. He assumes his mock serious persona from vintage comedy skits on “Saturday Night Live.” The tone-deaf performance works no better than the one, which he contributed to “Yogi Bear.”
“Get On Up” uses a curious framing device. It kicks off and ends with a highly-publicized incident, which took place in 1988. During it, Brown was part of a multi-car, high-speed car chase by police. Convicted of carrying an unlicensed gun as well as driving and drug charges, Brown did three years in prison. This was no doubt a pivotal event in Brown’s life. However, the film fails to establish a through line between this episode and the earlier stint that Brown did in a juvenile facility for robbery as a sixteen-year old. Moreover, the film neglects to make mention of the many other difficulties Brown experienced with the criminal justice system. It also relies on an end coda to convey the fact that after Brown was released from prison, he resumed a flourishing career.
This is just one of the myriad problems with the film’s screenplay. It makes extensive and repeated use of flashbacks to Brown’s childhood. These are among the film’s best vignettes. However, the film fails to provide adequate segue from Brown as a quiet, sensitive five-year old to the depiction of the protagonist as a tortured adult with an outsized ego and a volatile temper.
In addition to the intermittent flashbacks to Brown’s childhood, the film jumps all over the timeline in a random fashion, which is difficult to follow. At one point, a character, who has already died, is shown standing backstage. This proves highly disconcerting.
“Get On Up” draws its title from Brown’s 1965 hit single of the same name. The song represented a breakthrough in Brown’s career. It represented the first time that one of his releases reached the “Billboard” Hot 100, where it reached its apex at number eight. It dominated the R&B charts for eight consecutive weeks. The song also garnered Brown his first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. Although the film uses “Get On Up” as its title, it fails to place the tune in its proper historical context.
I was surprised to learn that this screenplay was penned by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Earlier this year, they were credited as part of the screenwriting team for “Edge of Tomorrow.” That cleverly structured script was vastly superior to the muddled mess that they have provided here.
This film offers James Brown’s excellent discography augmented by some solid acting. Alas, it is plagued by an ill-conceived screenplay. As a consequence, “Get on Up” is a mixed bag.
“Get on Up”
**1/2 PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations) 138 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.