TMN Movie Review: "Get on Up"

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A chronicle of James Brown's rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.
3.5

Rating: PG-13
Length: 138 minutes
Release Date: August 01, 2014
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Genre: Biography / Drama / Music

Over the course of six decades, music legend James Brown made an undeniable impact on the music scene even in times of personal turmoil and evident racism. Tate Taylor's "Get On Up" attempts to portray the life, thoughts and emotions of the hardest-working man in show business in one fast-paced biopic. Featuring nonlinear storytelling, thoughtful portrayals and a perfect background of cultural context, "Get On Up" does the great singer justice without venturing into sugar-coated territory.

The beginning of "Get On Up" shows a successful James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) as he takes to the stage, musing about his past in pieces of dialog that are revealed later in the film. Audiences are then introduced to a young Brown (Jamarian and Jordan Scott) when he is just 6 years old, living his childhood in poverty. When his mother abandons him, he goes to live with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a firm yet loving woman who runs a brothel. Throughout his childhood in South Carolina and Georgia, Brown demonstrates a strong connection to soul music and rhythm. Over the years, Brown has a close relationship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), a personal friend and musical partner. Together, they help to shape the formation of the new soul and funk scene.

In 1964, Brown is the dedicated band leader of Famous Flames, performing on stage and showing up the Rolling Stones on “The T.A.M.I. Show.” The film then shoots back to Brown's teenage years during which he is arrested for theft and develops his love of music under the most adverse circumstances. Viewers also get a glimpse of Brown's complex love life as he goes from faithful husband to wife beater, and his rags-to-riches story also follows his sudden debt after some poor entrepreneurial decisions. At one point, audiences see Brown's stint in Vietnam during which his plane is nearly shot down. When his long-lost mother Susie (Viola Davis) finally returns to her son after seeing his widespread success, Brown is resentful, resulting in some of the film's most emotional scenes. The film closes in 1993 as Brown performs for a cheering crowd during a comeback concert following his time in jail for aggravated assault.

"Get On Up" is not a traditional biography, using the perfect blend of style and gritty realism to accurately portray the artist while capturing and holding the attention of audiences. Although the scattered time line is confusing at times, the use of period-appropriate makeup, costumes and cultural references help to keep viewers on track. The screenplay from John-Henry Butterwort and Jez Butterworth keeps things interesting, and one of its biggest successes is the revelation of every side of Brown's life. Viewers see the singer when he is an affectionate husband, but they also see him abuse his wives. They see him reeling with electric dance moves during heated performances, and they see him struggling to find the words to tell his mother how much she has hurt him. The result is a fantastic story that is as genuine as it is interesting.

One of the best aspects of the film is its portrayal of Brown as a musical mastermind. His obsessive side shows as he tries endlessly to perfect his beats, and his style develops gradually throughout his life experiences. The soundtrack itself is particularly stunning, with an exciting compilation of live and studio recordings joined by more modern musical sounds in a pleasant remix. The concert re-creations never feel staged, and the selection of hits life "I Got You" and "Get On Up" is sure to resonate with music fans everywhere.

A biography as important as the one detailing the life of the Godfather of Soul requires a strong, dedicated actor to make it work, and Chadwick Boseman proves himself worthy of filling this role. He reportedly rehearsed five hours a day for eight weeks and carefully studied concert footage to get a better feel of the singer's stage presentation. Boseman gives a heartfelt performance during scenes displaying the musician's personal life, but he is also surprisingly energetic on stage as he demonstrates some typical James Brown dance moves and a natural sense of rhythm.

"Get On Up" defies biography clichés by the handful, and only time can tell if this film's unique features are embraced or shunned by moviegoers. Nonetheless, this adventurous film delivers a combination of great acting and fast-paced storytelling to beautifully portray James Brown's energetic and complex life as a singer. Music aficionados and general audiences alike are sure to enjoy this great biography.