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Get On Up: Soul Brother Number One On Film

Updated on November 26, 2015

Get On Up is the biopic of one of the most influential rhythm and blues singers of our time. Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown, who rose from difficult circumstances to become a popular singer, then worked to overcome other problems that came with stardom. The movie covers Brown's life from 1939, as a boy caught between feuding parents, to 1993, as the singer hit the road again at age sixty. The fighting between his mother, Susie Brown (Viola Davis), and father, Joe James (Lennie James), became so contentious, Joe chased Susie away with a gun. When the Army called Joe to serve in World War II, Joe leaves young James (twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott) in the care of a brothel owner called Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). James helps her bring servicemen to the business. As a teen, James gets in trouble with the law for stealing a suit, and receives a sentence of five to thirteen years. Following a fight during a gospel concert, James meets Bobby Boyd (Nelsan Ellis), a singer in the group, at the prison infirmary. James gets to show the singing skill he learned, and, after hearing the story of what keeps James incarcerated, Bobby agrees to give James a place to live, much to the concern of his family.

Once James teams with Bobby and his group, they assume a new identity and even crash a concert by Little Richard (Brandon Smith). Instead of getting angry, Little Richard tells James what he's doing to try to get record company attention. James and the Flames tour the south, barely making enough money for expenses. Things get worse when motor trouble adds to the monetary trouble. To their good fortune, Ralph Bass (Josh Hopkins), a talent scout who was supposed to meet them at their next stop, goes looking for them when they run late. He comes to the restaurant, and eventually gets James and the band to record some tracks at Cincinnati's King Records. Not only do they get a record label, they also get a manager in Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd). Ben sees the talent in James, and gives he band an image makeover that doesn't sit well with the other Flames. Bobby stays, and watches James's star rises and reaches young music fans in both the States and the UK. The band grows to over 20 members as hits and concerts keep coming. Things change, though, following Ben's death in the late 1960s. Money management, personal relationships, and drug use become factors in Brown's changing behavior. His erratic ways manifest themselves the most when he crashes a business meeting at a building he owns with a rifle in his hand.

Get On Up is a crowd-pleasing picture director from Tate Taylor, whose previous picture was the 2011 crowd pleaser The Help. The film shows a man pursuing a dream as he learns to balance show business and family life. Stardom not only shows the range of Brown's talent, but he learns the business of show business. The movie also shows a singer who spirals out of control in private as his legion of fans grows in public. Films like Ray and Coal Miner's Daughter stand out in my mind in the genre of musical biopics, but Get On Up celebrates the life and legacy of Brown, and shows the flaws of his life as well. While I think Get On Up often comes across as a typical biopic, I enjoy Taylor's capable and affectionate treatment of the music legend. The screenplay comes from the brother tandem of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, whose other screen credits are on the widely different pictures Edge Of Tomorrow (2014) and Fair Game (2010).

Boseman, who impressed as baseball great Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film 42, adds to his short film resume by bringing the soul legend to life (though the music is still Brown's recordings). Boseman becomes James Brown, giving a most convincing portrayal of the singer from age 16 to age 60. Singing had been James's salvation and passion, and Bobby and Little Richard helped to shape his early life as a performer. Success also helped to shape his image as he learn to work with a large band, and they forged a sound that complemented his powerful voice. Boseman also showed how tragedy shaped the man, who seemed ill-prepared to deal with loss. Davis and Spencer, who had more prominent roles in The Help, are solid in support as his mother and a mother figure, respectively. Aykroyd is solid as Brown's manager and mentor. Singers Jill Scott and Aloe Blacc also have small roles in this film. Allison Janney, who also appeared in The Help, has an amusing cameo as a fellow guest at a hotel where the Brown entourage is staying. Mick Jagger, who served as a producer on Get On Up, appears in archive footage with his band, The Rolling Stones.

In a career that lasted over 50 years, James Brown never had a # 1 hit on the Billboard pop charts. On Billboard's R & B charts, though, Brown fared somewhat better, and left a great deal of music that continues to have its fans and admirers. Get On Up shows what shaped the man, for good and for bad. James Brown always put on a high-octane show, but that same level of energy could - and sometimes did - go wrong for him off stage. Get On Up shows a man who rose from a terrible upbringing to a person who reached great heights as a singer - and those heights sometimes became too high. When he sang, though, James Brown sang with a style that influenced many, for he had a style that was all his own.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Get On Up three stars. This one pleased, pleased, pleased me.


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